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The Two Meanings of Reaction (Excerpt from Based Deleuze)

The following is an excerpt from my short book Based Deleuze, which will be published on September 20th. Pre-order here and you’ll receive it by email as soon as it’s released.


Discussing the ideological valence of great thinkers is difficult because they have little use for the crutches of ideology. The difficulty is particularly acute today, when ideological labels are used so loosely, and often with ulterior motives. I should therefore clarify, at the outset, what I mean by "reactionary" in the subtitle of this book.

In some sense, Deleuze was explicitly anti-reactionary. He was anti-reactionary in the sense that he was anti-reactive, in the spirit of Spinoza and Nietzsche. To be a reactionary, in this pejorative sense, means to be always responding to active, superior forces, instead of becoming an active force; to be captured by sad affects, to be resentful, and to think and act with these as one's motive forces.

This common sense understanding of reactionism partially maps onto the modern political-ideological sense of the word. The data show that conservatives are more reactive to disgusting stimuli, for instance (Inbar et al. 2009). Experiments have shown that even just the presence of foul odors can make people slightly, but measurably, more conservative (Schnall et al 2008). Conservatives are more likely to see threats and reactively demand "law and order." Edmund Burke watched the French Revolution with horror, and famously wrote about his reactions. Henceforth, we'll refer to this aspect of reactionary or conservative politics as reactivism. I prefer reactivism to reactionism because it will remind us that left-wing progressive activism is much closer to this sense of "reactionary" than we are accustomed to thinking. Reactionary politics in this sense, reactivism, can be a failure mode of left-wing politics no less than right-wing politics.

Things get confusing because modern society also calls reactionary whatever transgresses left-wing or progressive norms. Nietzsche, for instance, is seen by many as a reactionary, even though one pillar of his whole life's philosophy is a contempt for reactive tendencies. Since World War II, any sufficiently disagreeable and strong-willed individual eager to avoid reactivism — who wishes to constitute an authentic, healthy, and autonomous existence — will generally be coded as reactionary. Even if their political beliefs are ideologically ambiguous or ambivalent. Strong and uncompromisingly active drives get coded as "reactionary" if the individual is not plausibly linked to the larger collective liberation struggle of some officially marginalized group. It is only in this sense of the term that we will find a "reactionary" component in the philosophy of Deleuze.

This latter sense of "reaction" is a recurring, subterranean tendency that can arise from the Left as well as the Right. It is most likely to emerge from the Right, but in periods when "the Left" becomes especially, excessively decadent - the responsibility to transgress "The Left" occasionally falls to an otherwise proper leftist.

This is how we will understand Deleuze's “reactionary leftism.”

Deleuze’s Troublesome Inheritance (Excerpt from Based Deleuze)

Now that the book is a little more than 75% done, I figure I should start posting some excerpts. Did you know Deleuze’s parents were both fascists? Good son that he was, though, he never disavowed them. Very naughty, today’s Antifa would say, but very based. Not because fascism is cool — Deleuze was unambiguously anti-fascist, as am I — but because honoring your mother and father is far more important than signaling games. Your mother and father are immanent, molecular parts of your life, whereas public signaling games have only to do with molar institutions. Verbal statements can significantly and advantageously affect interpersonal relationships (what Deleuze and Guattari mean in their discourses on collective “enunciation”), but as soon as you start making statements for the purpose of manipulating public consequences — you're captured. So it would never make sense to throw your father under the bus, even if he is a literal fascist, just to show some random journalist you’re on her team. Get it? Probably not! That’s why I’m writing Based Deleuze.

I’ll also paste here the current table of contents, as of today.

Current Table of Contents

  1. Bearing One’s Cross
  2. A Troublesome Inheritance
  3. From Christ to the Bourgeoisie
  4. Becoming Imperceptible
  5. HBDeleuze
  6. Accelerate the Process
  7. Becoming Minority
  8. Deleuzo-Petersonianism
  9. Autocracy, Capital, Bureaucracy

Excerpt from A Troublesome Inheritance

Let us consider a psycho-biographical approach to understanding the ideological valence of Deleuze’s thought. Political ideologies are known to be heritable — probably somewhere between 30% and 60% heritable (Hatemi et al. 2014) — so an author’s family background must provide at least some hints about an author’s ideological center of gravity. Most attitudes show a higher correlation with parental attitudes later in life, suggesting that individuals early in life experiment by deviating from their inherited center of gravity, before eventually settling their viewpoints somewhere closer to that center of gravity.

According to the joint biography of Deleuze and Guattari by Françoise Dosse (2011), both of Deleuze's parents were ideologically conservative. Louis Deleuze was an engineer and small-business owner, before he closed-up shop to become an employee of a large aerospace engineering firm. Louis disliked the Popular Front, the left-wing coalition that came to power in 1936, instead favoring a relatively small paramilitary party known as the Croix-de-Feu. Originally consisting of World War I veterans, this faction was financially supported by French millionaire and benefactor of Mussolini, Françoise Coty. The party had a Catholic bent because the Catholic Church prohibited Catholics from supporting the monarchist Action Française. The Croix-de-Feu was essentially a French equivalent of the Nazi party in Germany and the National Fascist Party in Italy, although this tendency in France was much weaker (the party enjoyed only about a million members at the height of its popularity).

After the Popular Front came to power, Louis and his wife, Odette, were horrified by the empowerment of working-class people. The Popular Front passed policies such as mandatory paid vacations for all workers. Gilles recalls Louis and Odette disgusted to find working-class people on the beaches of Deauville, where the Deleuze family vacationed in Normandy. “My mother, who was surely the best of women, said that it was impossible to go to a beach with people like that on it (Dosse 2011, 89)." Notice that Deleuze does not disavow his mother or her disgust, prefacing his recollection with an emphatic endorsement of the woman.

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To be clear, I don’t argue that Deleuze was sympathetic to fascism, but his writings and interviews are filled with ideologically devilish statements such as this one. Why? Nobody really knows. Now that I'm about half-way done with the book, I'm more convinced than ever that I have the answer. If you haven’t already, pre-order now. You know you want to!

How to kill the grump in your head (Deleuzean #NiceRx?)

I can sometimes sense inside of myself, already, the early stirrings of elderly grumpiness. Needless to say, I do not like this, and so at this relatively early stage in my life, I must do everything possible to avert this sad fate.

A few nights ago, I went to my friends’ house to watch Eurovision. I think I was overly negative that evening, criticizing all the acts with a bit too much loathing, to the point that I was perhaps slightly rude to my friends. I don’t mind being slightly rude if I am asserting something important that I believe, during moments that matter, but that’s not what I was doing. I was just counter-signaling, which is contemptible. In my contempt for postmodern pop culture, I fell into its clutches and played its game: vacuous speech and micro-performances motivated only to assert and sustain my own sense of ego and identity, in order to feel proud and be recognized, to feel differentiated and distinguished in the ever continuing mass meltdown of all values and tastes. No matter who you are or what you believe, this mode of being in the world, this defensive ego-maintenance mode, is always contemptible (although it is often forgivable and sometimes unavoidable).

Of course, the solution is perfectly clear, easy, and ancient: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all — unless it’s really important and coming from a place that is non-reactive and affirmative of life in general. But this rule, which well-behaved children can follow, is surprisingly hard to follow for many adults. Why?

One reason this rule is hard to follow is that when you hang-out with friends — in order to be the most fun for them but also for your own enjoyment, the whole point of hanging out – it is necessary to “let oneself go,” at least to some degree. The unique challenge enters when the hangout itself is premised on social signaling games as part of the fun (and this can be a fine source of great fun). The whole point of watching Eurovision with friends is to take turns making all kinds of comments, criticisms, affirmations, oppositions, displays of wit, and gifts of humor — all so many subtle and enjoyable ways to revel in one’s belonging, to the assembled group but also to the larger groups that the assembled group sees itself as belonging to.

The simple truth is that we do live in postmodernity, whether one likes or not. Therefore, if you dislike postmodernist relativism, but you would like to avoid becoming a grumpy person, you must take care not to "let oneself go” in contexts where the normal social behavior presumes alignment with postmodern relativism.

There is an opposite pitfall, however, which is avoiding all contexts were normal social behavior presumes alignment with postmodernism. In postmodernity, avoiding the presumption of postmodernism would mean nothing less than “dropping out” of all social intercourse, generally a direct path to resentful lonerism. This is not the case for everyone, perhaps, and the internet is rapidly increasing the feasibility of unhinging altogether from normal IRL social expectations, but typically “refusing to interact with most people” is a recipe for various forms of disaster.

Ultimately, I think the solution is as follows. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all, but when you do choose to let yourself go — and you must, at times — only do it on a novel plane of your own construction, orthogonal to whatever is the presumed socio-moral playing field. You will be incomprehensible, but that’s fine. In short, if one is to avoid grumpiness, one cannot avoid being a philosopher. Oblique angles always; diverge but never resist.

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