The French essayist Roger Caillois compared philosophy as habitually practised to the tusks of a mammoth, so ponderously heavy that, no longer able to thrust forward, coiled in on themselves, becoming strictly inoperative, though perhaps decorative.
The image is that of a discipline in its final stage and the lack of a real field of cognitive, cogitative forces. Which is no doubt why so many apprentice philosophers, their studies completed, tired of ploughing through so many opaque and repetitive texts, have turned rather to ethnology, sociology, psychology.
But within philosophy itself, as early as the end of the nineteenth century, marginally, subterraneously, often totally unseen, and when seen grotesquely misunderstood, has taken place a series of displacements, topological transformations much more radical than what was going on in the more and more crowded precincts of the « human sciences ».
It begins with Nietzsche.
To put it here succinctly, Nietzsche proposes the idea of the artist-philosopher and, while criticizing radically most poets and most poetry, calls himself « a poet – at the farthest limits of the notion ». If he moves out of philosophizing towards art (again, the most demanding art), it’s because, in his eyes, « the phenomenon of the artist is the most transparent ». As I see it, the whole of Nietzsche’s work, so marked by crises, breaks and contradictions, is a transition towards such a transparence. He starts off by analyzing the no-man’s-land of nihilism. Then, making contact with the pre-socratics such as Heraclitus, he moves up back of metaphysics in order to enter into a landscape-mindscape dominated by no transcendental idea, Christian or Platonic. There is, certainly, a transcendental figure in Nietzsche, the one he called the overman: « the sense of the earth is overhumanist ». This makes sense: an overpassing of introverted humanism and excessive human impositions on the Earth. But as it comes across in Thus spake Zarathustra, it’s all too grandiloquently lyrical, and rings somewhat hollow to my ears. Maybe also in that notion of « the sense of the earth », there are remnants of teleology (the idea that the Earth has « a purpose » stemming ultimately from some Creator). If one is to « remain faithful to the Earth », which is Nietzsche’s principal tenet, it’s better to avoid even passing notions of sense and destiny, and simply try to maintain a dense and intense sensation of life. And that’s what one gets in Nietzsche finest texts. But his general situation was more complicated. In one of those lightning-analyses he is capable of (and beside which Kantian enlightenment seems a bit plodding and slow), he has this: « Around the hero, everything becomes tragedy; around the demi-god, everything becomes world. » Nietzsche (we can drop the « god » metaphor) didn’t make it to « world ». His work, his life-thought, as I see it, is situated between tragedy and satire. What was lacing (it’s extremely rare anywhere) was an adequate poetisation, a world poetics. But what I retain from Nietzsche, in addition to his radical culture criticism and these halcyon movements I evoked, is the first sketch of an aesthetics (« A sense of the permanent along with a minimum of means »), and the figure of what he called the « artist-philosopher », and which I prefer to call the poet-thinker.
It’s this figure that’s been haunting philosophy for a century. I’d say that, globally, via the dismantling of metaphysics, what we witness is a move from the history of metaphysics towards a new geography of the mind, a new physical-poetic space.
One of those, perhaps supreme among them, albeit at times with aberrations, who have worked longest and most in this area is Martin Heidegger. With the aim of moving out of philosophy (its concepts, its mechanisms) in order to start thinking again, in order to enter into « original districts » into which philosophy has never penetrated, he speaks of a « beginning thinking » (anfängliches Denken). And if, in order to lay the basis of this, Heidegger dialogues with philosophers of the past (mainly the Presocratics), it’s mainly poets he frequents: Hölderlin, Rilke, Trakl, René Char…, as he sees travellers in a « topology of being ». Poets such as these move on a ground more fundamental than the topsoil of philosophy, and in Heidegger’s eyes think farther. While trying to maintain a certain distance between philosophy and poetry, so as to avoid hasty amalgamations, it’s quite clear to him, for example, when he evokes the neighbourhood of Hegel and Hölderlin (companions in their student days), that, already at the end of the eighteenth century, « the poet had already broken through the speculative idealism that the philosopher was constructing ». I mentioned in passing Heidegger’s aberrations, stemming ultimately I’d say from his pietistic sense of the soil and his homeland mystique. I don’t share them. But to use them as some do as an excuse for discarding Heidegger’s thought is, to say the least, simplistic.
There is no pietism of the soil or homeland mystique in the work of the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze. In fact, with his « deterritorialisation », he probably goes too far in the opposite direction. But his work is also pertinent in our context, especially when he’s in the proximity of Nietzsche. Deleuze, and it was not the least of his contributions to thought, was one of the first in France to lift Nietzsche out of the precinct of nazism, a positioning that was frequent in the post-war period and which, as with Heidegger (but with no justification at all in this case), was an excuse among lazy but indignantly irate minds for making platform statements sure to be applauded, while never grappling with the work itself. It was at a colloquium of 1973 that Deleuze made public his first re-reading of Nietzsche. He starts off by saying he’s well aware that he hasn’t grasped Nietzsche’s work yet as a whole, he just feels that there’s something going on in it that « can’t be coded ». What comes across via a multiplicity of aphorisms and notes and poems, is a movement of drift entirely different from the succession of normal discourse, and in direct touch with the Outside that philosophy has lost, maybe never possessed, even when it talked about politics or nature. Along with this « drift » goes a type of writing, able to follow the drift and at the same time express intense moments of lived life that take place not only outside the context of imagination and fantasy, but outside the habitual systems of representation. Deleuze later developed these early notations in the book A Thousand Plateaux (1980) but all too frenetically, as in a futuristic delirium. Later again in What is Philosophy (1991), altogether less hectic, feverish, schizoid than the millennial book on capitalism and schizophrenia, with hordes of war-machines zig-zagging in the middle, he has interesting things to say about the general politico-cultural situation: « We don’t have a real plane of immanence », and on the relationship between concept and figure, ending up by talking about « conceptual figures » going beyond the conceptualism of philosophy and the ordinary figurations of art, that « conceptual figure » being pretty close to what I’ve referred to as the poet-thinker. Particularly interesting perhaps is his conception of the act of thinking itself: « Subject and object provide a poor approach to thought. Thought isn’t a cord stretched between subject and object, nor a convolution of one around the other. Real thinking takes place in a relationship to earth and to territory. » There, we come very close to geopoetics. So much so that it comes as no great surprise (readers will be amused by the coincidence) to see Deleuze putting forward the notion of « geo-philosophy ». But « geo-philosophy » turns out to be a pretty poor, disappointing concept. Deleuze declares that it was Nietzsche who founded « geo-philosophy » when he set about « determining the national characteristics of French, English and German thought ». If that is what Nietzschean thought finally boils down to in Deleuze’s mind, it is a pity. If that were all Nietzsche ever did, I would be less interested in him than I am. But the Nietzsche that interests me is the one who walked on the plateau of the Engadine, or along the bay of Genoa, far away from national characteristics, far outside national frameworks.
Deleuze wrote many of his books in collaboration with the political activist and psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, and it’s probably this juxtaposition that makes for the particular tonality and rhythm of some of these productions. This seems all the more probable when we see what Guattari can do when he’s on his own. In his Schizoanalytical Cartographies of 1989, he speaks of the need for « a fundamental repositioning of man in relation to the environment », and the need to open up a field more durable than « the ephemeral effervescences » of « crazy spontaneity » which periodically rock society, we can be all with him But when he starts in to proposing his methods for getting at something more founded, grounded and lasting, I for one am more than sceptical. « Energetic discoursivity » I can take. But hardly lyrical-utopian stuff such as this: « Only a strengthening of the third voice, that of self-reference, the passage from the consensual mediatic era to a dissensual post-mediatic era, will allow each and everyone to put to full use their potentialities and perhaps transform this planet, experienced today as a hell by four-fifths of the population, into a universe of creative enchantments. » I shudder at the setting-up, no doubt by well-intentioned persons, of such « creative enchantments ».
This kind of unbuttoning on the part of philosophers can reach ridiculous proportions. If Michel Serres is impeccable on the history of Greek science, if his Northwest Passage (1980), in spite of a certain stylistic mannerism, opens up interesting space, when we come to Genesis (1982) and The Natural Contract (1990), Serres « creativity » runs riot. Here’s the description of the trip to Paradise in Genesis : « Blond, Eve is wearing a short black and white dress, imprinted with big roses. Her shoes have the same acidgreen colour as her belt. As for Adam, dark, wearing navyblue pants and a stylish pullover, he’s trembling with excitement. They give each other a heartfelt kiss. An October gale prevents the boat from taking to sea, but there is expectancy in the air. » Even with a pinch of irony, it’s too much. And in the Natural Contract, it gets worse. At the end of this book, the grand finale, Serres offers us an erotico-lyrical divagation that would have made Rousseau in his most gushing moments blush. In the course of this he makes love to the Earth: « Who am I? A trembling in the void, living in a permanent earthquake. During one moment of exquisite happiness, the spasmodic Earth unites with me. Who am I, now, for a few seconds? The Earth itself. In communion, the two of us, in love, enwrapped in an aura. »
When philosophers start confusing inflation with inspiration, and begin to wax creatively poetic, anything can happen. One can understand why, in the face of such exhibitions, certain of their colleagues prefer simply, in the various media at their disposal, to comment, philosophically, on the sociopolitical events of the week.
For the real track, the deep connection between thought and poetics, back to Nietzsche, moving out from there, avoiding the pitfalls and the quagmires.