An Interview with Clayton Crockett, Author of Deleuze Beyond Badiou

Deleuze Beyond Badiou
In this interview, Clayton Crockett, author of Deleuze Beyond Badiou: Ontology, Multiplicity, and Event and editor of the Insurrections series, discusses why he decided to defend Gilles Deleuze from Alain Badiou, and how, in the process, he came to write a radical reworking of Deleuze’s political philosophy and discovered a continuity between the French philosopher’s controversial and abstruse writings.

Q: You have written and published on theology and religion. Why a book on two French philosophers, who are both opposed to religion?

A: Yes, both Deleuze and Badiou are atheists, but they both grapple with what I call theological issues and questions, Badiou most explicitly in his book on St. Paul. And my understanding of theology is radical and non-confessional, as well as strongly influenced by poststructuralist French or Continental philosophy.

Q: How did you come to write this book?

A: I studied Deleuze in graduate school at Syracuse, and the further I went, the more I kept coming back to his thought, especially Difference and Repetition, which I didn’t fully understand but found brilliant and groundbreaking. As Badiou’s work became more prominent I read Badiou, but I really disliked his treatment of Deleuze in Deleuze: The Clamor of Being. Over the past three years, I ended up leading seminars on Difference and Repetition and Cinema 2, and began to develop a much better understanding of Deleuze’s philosophy as a whole. Around this time, Jeff Robbins, my series co-editor for the Insurrections Series, asked Creston Davis and I to respond to a question from one of Jeff’s students about the difference between Deleuze and Badiou. Creston liked Deleuze, but leaned towards Badiou, whereas I appreciated Badiou but preferred Deleuze. I ended up writing a much more detailed answer than I expected, which expanded into a blog post for Creston’s blog “Objet Petit A,” and then just kept writing.

Q: What is specifically your problem with Badiou’s interpretation of Deleuze?

A: Badiou charges Deleuze with being a hidden philosopher of the One, with being aristocratic, quietist, and with being obsessed with the past. He also associates him with the Presocratic naïve efforts to understand nature. I really felt that Badiou created this caricature of Deleuze that was set up as a foil for Badiou to present himself as this master-philosopher. And Daniel W. Smith explains in an essay called “Mathematics and the Theory of Multiplicities” why this is such a terrible understanding of Deleuze.

But I wouldn’t have written the book just to show that Badiou is wrong about Deleuze. As I worked through Difference and Repetition I realized that my own understanding of Deleuze’s philosophy was changed, and that I found a radical, revolutionary way to read Deleuze based on his work on repetition, intensity, energy and physics in chapter 5, and that this is consistent with his incredible book on the time-image, Cinema 2. Finally, I argue that Cinema 2 is a political book; as Paola Marrati says, it’s the book where Deleuze works out his political philosophy. And then I figured out how to situate Capitalism and Schizophrenia between Difference and Repetition and Cinema 2. So Badiou becomes a productive foil against which I can present my interpretation of Deleuze.

Q: Badiou aggressively attacked Deleuze in print, and even disrupted his classes, right?

A: Yes, Badiou was a radical Maoist, and he felt that Deleuze was insufficiently radical. Deleuze supported the student movements in 1968 while teaching at Lyon, even though he was ill with tuberculosis. In the 1970’s, they were both teaching at Vincennes, an experimental university designed to respond to the student protests, and Badiou and his “brigades” led interventions into Deleuze’s seminar. Furthermore, under a pseudonym, Badiou published an essay called “The Fascism of the Potato” where he attacked Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome, which is the root-structure of tubers.

Q: So they were not friends.

A: No, although at the end of Deleuze’s life, they engaged in a correspondence of letters, partly because Badiou appreciated Deleuze’s dismissal of the Nouveaux Philosophers, people like Bernard Henri Levy who he felt popularized and trivialized philosophy. Anyway, Deleuze was critical of Badiou’s understanding of multiplicity, and said so in his last book (written with Guattari), What is Philosophy?. Deleuze ended up asking Badiou not to publish their correspondence, because he was becoming weaker and sicker, and he felt that they were not his best articulations of what was at stake. Badiou agreed, but then referred to these letters in his book Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, and used their occasion to write a final critical response to Deleuze after Deleuze’s death, which many readers of Deleuze felt was highly unfair, because Deleuze was unable to respond.

Q: Say more about your interpretation of Deleuze.

A: Badiou’s interpretation reduces the three syntheses of time in Difference and Repetition to two, and this move collapses Deleuze into Bergson. So you only have matter and memory, present and past, actual and virtual, etc. But this ignores the third synthesis, the synthesis of the future, based on Deleuze’s reading of the eternal return. Only what is different returns. And this difference is grounded in repetition, which Deleuze calls intensity. But Deleuze does not resolve the question of intensity until chapter 5, after his discussion of the image of thought in chapter 3, and his treatment of the Idea as a virtual multiplicity in terms of differential calculus in chapter 4. I argue that Deleuze is theorizing chaotic complexity, even if he does not uses physics terminology. Manuel Delanda gets closest to appreciating this, but then he overemphasizes the virtual, as many of Deleuze’s readers do. The virtual and the actual are two sides of the same coin, but it’s not symmetrical, it’s an asymmetrical synthesis. And this is akin to what the science of nonequilibrium thermodynamics is saying, that nature works to reduce gradient differentials by means of what we call entropy. But in specific conditions that are not at equilibrium, along the edge of chaos, this process creates what we call structure or order so long as energy flows through the system. Deleuze is not a vitalist in panpsychic terms, even if he’s drawn to some of these sources; he’s fully material but it’s a spiritual materialism based on energy transformation, not a bare reductionistic materialism.

I argue that Capitalism and Schizophrenia, despite Zizek’s antipathy, sketches out a political vision that is entirely consistent with Difference and Repetition, but it runs into an impasse at the end of A Thousand Plateaus, where the nomadology of the war machine runs smack into the apparatus of capture by the State. This is because Deleuze and Guattari’s political thought here is based on movement. So what happens? Deleuze retreats into aesthetics, first painting and then cinema, but he’s not just retreating, he’s looking for a new weapon, and he finds it in the time-image. Cinema 2 is about building a new brain, and it’s a revolutionary political project based on inventing the people who are missing. Political thought is based on time, and the time-image is the way to understand the production of new events.

Q: How does Badiou’s idea of the event differ from Deleuze’s?

A: For Badiou, the paradigm or model of the event is the revolt of May 1968 in France. It’s an unforeseen, unexpected and grandly political happening that inspires people to take to the streets. For Deleuze, an event is more subtle, more multiple and more pervasive. He says in The Logic of Sense that an event is not what happens, but it’s something that is occurring within what happens. So it’s a kind of feeling or affect that charges what takes place. Badiou feels like that waters down and trivializes an event. But I argue that Deleuze actually preserves the revolutionary possibilities for thinking better than Badiou, because even though thought emerges as a response to a situation, it harbors the possibility for an event, a revolutionary political idea that Deleuze calls a “time-image” in Cinema 2, and this cuts against the stereotypical view of Deleuze as apolitical that Badiou promotes.

Q: How do you relate your notion of a “politics of the event” to the contemporary situation in Haiti?
A: Even though I am critical of Peter Hallward’s interpretation of Deleuze in Out of This World, I admire his book Damming the Flood, which deals with the successful coup against Aristide in 2004, supported by the USA. Aristide, along with other Latin American leaders, was distorted and demonized almost beyond recognition by neoliberal and conservative media portrayals, and Hallward helps put what happened in Haiti with Aristide, a liberation theologian, and his followers, Lavalas, which means the flood, in context. When I started reading about Haiti, I was fascinated as well as horrified by the slavery, racism, poverty, ignorance and suffering that took place on that island, as well as the relationship between the Haitian Revolution and the French Revolution, on the one hand, and the American Revolution, on the other. But the Haitian Revolution has been neglected and ignored, because of European colonialism and American slavery and later racism.

In the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck in 2010, and the mess of the aid and recovery and reconstruction efforts, I wanted to think about Haiti as a kind of test-case of democracy, as well as kind of application of the reading I developed of Deleuze. This involves seeing Haitian religion, which itself is incredibly complex and poorly understood, as a sort of time-image. It also brings some of my interests in religion and theology back into the book, because I was able to read Derrida’s response to Heidegger’s posthumous interview, “Only a God Can Save Us,” more in relation to Vodou in particular, or Orisha worship more generally. At the same time, I did this working out of deep humility because I am in no way an expert or scholar of Haiti or Haitian Vodou, but I think it is critical to connect up some of the work that is being done on these topics with broader political and philosophical discourses. Even though I do not specifically draw on her work in my chapter, I was inspired by the book on Hegel and Haiti by Susan Buck-Morss as an example of an attempt to develop such connections.

Q: What do you hope Deleuze Beyond Badiou will accomplish?

A: I hope that it will help readers of both philosophers. I certainly don’t want to bury Badiou, but I would hope Badiou readers and scholars would take into account some of the misinterpretations of Deleuze, and at least not accept them on face value without engaging with Deleuze’s texts. For Deleuze, I have worked with Deleuze for years but I am not a Deleuze scholar. Nevertheless, I hope that scholars and readers of Deleuze can see how his work is relevant for contemporary issues of religion, science, and politics, as well as philosophy.

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