Deleuze and cosmopolitanism

RP 142 () / Article

The status of the political within the work of Gilles Deleuze has recently become a topic of contention.1 Two recent books argue the case for two extremes among a range of possible interpretations. At one end of the spectrum, Peter Hallward has argued that Deleuzeʼs personal ethic of deterritorialization and self-destruction is so disengaged with the actuality of social relations that it is unable to offer any serious political philosophy.2 At the other end of the spectrum, Manuel De Landa outlines in his most recent book an entire social and political theory modelled upon Deleuze and Guattariʼs ontology of machinic assemblages.3 In what follows I offer a contribution to this literature on Deleuzeʼs political philosophy.4 To be more precise I should say Deleuze and Guattariʼs political philosophy, for Deleuzeʼs most explicit comments on politics appear in the co-authored Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. If Anti-Oedipus is the critical and destructive polemic, then A Thousand Plateaus is the creative and constructive manifesto, and so my focus shall be on the latter. In particular I shall focus upon the ʻplateauʼ entitled ʻ1227: Treatise on Nomadology – The War Machineʼ, but I shall also draw upon material from Deleuzeʼs solo work Difference and Repetition that prefigures the central theme of that section. I shall argue that the political philosophy developed by Deleuze and Guattari shares much in common with, and should be seen as part of, the cosmopolitan tradition within political thinking. This broad tradition holds that all human beings belong to a single global community and that this universal community is more fundamental than the local political states into which individuals are born. As we shall see, this tradition has its origins with the ancient Cynics and Stoics.

The claim that Deleuze stands within a cosmopolitan tradition stretching back to the Stoics is a striking one, especially when one bears in mind Deleuzeʼs explicit interest in Stoicism in The Logic of Sense, where he engages with it on a number of fronts. Drawing upon the Stoic theory of incorporeals, Deleuze outlines an ontological surface populated by bodies on one side and incorporeal effects or events on the other. He also draws upon what he calls the Stoic theory of aiôn and chronos, a dual reading of time each part of which corresponds to one of the two sides of his ontological surface (the extended present of chronos is the time of bodies, while the durationless limit of aiôn separating past and future is the time of the incorporeal transformation or event). As it happens, none of this bears much relation to what we know about the ancient Stoicsʼ ontology and theory of time, and in the latter case Deleuzeʼs confusion reflects that of his source.5 His briefer remarks about Stoic ethics come closer to what we find in ancient Stoicism – especially the later Stoics – and the very positive tone suggests that he felt a real affinity with the ancient Stoa.6 It is in the light of his claim that Stoic ethics offers us the only meaningful form of ethics left, namely ʻnot to be unworthy of what happens to usʼ,7 that I argue here that Deleuze also proposes a Stoic politics, even if he never explicitly conceived it as such.

Before turning to Deleuze and Guattari directly, I shall begin by introducing ancient cosmopolitanism. I shall then focus in on one particularly important ancient text relating to the Republic of Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, analysing it alongside an equally important passage from Difference and Repetition. Then I shall turn to A Thousand Plateaus, and suggest the ways in which Deleuze and Guattariʼs political philosophy may be read as a contemporary version of ancient Stoic cosmopolitanism.



1. Note the following abbreviations: DR = Différence et repetition, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1968; Difference and Repetition, trans. P. Patton, Athlone, London, 1994; LS = Logique du sens, Minuit, Paris, 1969; The Logic of Sense, trans. M. Lester, Columbia University Press, New York, 1990; MP = Mille plateaux, with F. Guattari, Minuit, Paris, 1980; A Thousand Plateaus, trans. B. Massumi, Athlone, London, 1988. Abbreviations are followed by French, then English, pagination. For ancient authors I have made use of the Loeb Classical Library editions published by Harvard University Press.

2. See P. Hallward, Out of This World: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Creation, Verso, London, 2006.

3. See M. De Landa, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity, Continuum, London, 2006.

4. Previous studies include: T. May, The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism, Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1994; P. Patton, Deleuze and the Political, Routledge, London, 2000; N. Thoburn, Deleuze, Marx, and Politics, Routledge, London, 2003.

5. The Stoics in fact posit four types of incorporeal, of which linguistic meaning or sense (lekton, that which is said, often translated as ʻsayableʼ) is just one (the other three are time, place, and void). Deleuzeʼs supposedly Stoic ʻincorporeal effectsʼ are merely examples of these incorporeal linguistic predicates. There is no Stoic concept of an ʻincorporeal eventʼ along the lines that Deleuze suggests. Nor is there any conception of parallel series of bodies–causes and incorporeal–effects inhabiting two sides of a single surface. Deleuzeʼs account of aiôn and chronos does not correspond to what we know about Stoic thoughts about time either, and is the fabrication of Victor Goldschmidt, on whom Deleuze draws (see J. Sellars, ʻAn Ethics of the Event: Deleuzeʼs Stoicismʼ, Angelaki, vol. 11, no. 3, 2006, pp. 157–71, at p. 169 n35).

6. On Deleuze and Stoic ethics, see ibid.

7. See LS 174/149.