Walter Benjamin once mused about writing a book composed entirely of quotations. Today, I want to muse about writing an essay composed entirely of questions. Don’t worry—I’m only going to muse about it; I’m not actually going to do it. Who would want to bear witness to a litany like that?
We live in a world where the statement, punctuated by that most adamant sign of closure, the period, is the privileged form, and the question, the minoritarian other. We all know this, don’t we? It’s perfectly acceptable to compose an essay in which each and every sentence closes with a period. So why is it unacceptable to punctuate an essay with nothing but question marks? Could it be that the question is more powerful than the statement? Is that why we’re disciplined into using questions so sparingly—because they poke, perturb, and problematize?
Poetry, however, seems to be a literary medium that doesn't need to pose the problem at all. In the hands of America's most well-known "post-avant" poet Ron Silliman the question can be used as a rhetorical device intended to problematize the nature of communication itself. (See the excerpt from Marjorie Perloff's book "Wittgenstein's Ladder" posted at Modern American Poetry site.) "Sunset Debris" is a poem comprising entirely of three thousand questions, beginning and ending with "Can you feel it?"1
The question is my entrée into the passage about communication I’ll be addressing today, which is from Deleuze and Guattari’s final collaborative work, 1991’s What Is Philosophy? (English translation, 1994). It’s a book whose title takes the form of a question, indeed, the only one of Deleuze and Guattari’s collaborations to have done so. I’d venture to say that it’s not called What Philosophy Is for a reason. So my question is this: might the form of book’s title—the interrogative—tell us something about Deleuze and Guattari’s views on communication?
“We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present” (D&G 1994: 108; emphasis in original). This quotation appears almost exactly at the midpoint of What Is Philosophy? in the chapter on “Geophilosophy.” It’s pretext is a discussion of concept creation—what Deleuze and Guattari consider to be the point of philosophy—and the requisite conditions for doing so. It’s worth lingering on this observation for a moment: Deleuze and Guattari’s is a vital, productivist philosophy, and they see concept creation as what profoundly enlivens the becoming of the real.2
Philosophy has erred, Deleuze and Guattari claim, in cases where it’s hitched the cause of concept creation either to “the present form of the democratic state” or to “reflection” (108). The former they consider to be an anemic form of democracy, and thus insufficient in itself to provoke much more than new strategies for repression; the latter, reflection, they consider to be an effect, not a cause, and thus the deluded outcome of a certain genre of philosophizing preoccupied with exalting the thinking subject. But lowest in the hierarchy of false conditions of concept creation is communication, which, in Deleuze and Guattari’s words, is “even more dubious than … reflection” (108). Why does the duo hold communication in such contempt?
Answers to this question lie scattered here and there throughout the pages of Deleuze and Guattari’s individual and collaborative writings. In the interest of time, let me summarize briefly the two principal objections they raise in What Is Philosophy?
- First, they contend that deliberative or dialogic modes of philosophizing—the dialectic of classical Greek philosophy—arrive not at truths but rather adjudicate between competing opinions or truth claims. Thus the dialectic produces doxa, not concepts, resulting in a philosophy unable to imagine reality without reference to the “human, all too human” (Nietzsche).
- Second, Deleuze and Guattari have grave misgivings about the cozy relationship communication has forged with capitalism, particularly in the last century. They worry that the work of concept creation has been significantly—and falsely—subsumed by what Richard Florida calls the “creative class.” These are ad agents, PR mavens, intellectuals, and others who make communication their business. Among them, Deleuze and Guattari insist, creativity largely becomes a matter of dressing up the already familiar more than a vital process of producing qualitative changes in the real. “Philosophy has not remained unaffected by the general movement that replaced Critique with sales promotion,” they wryly assert. “The simulacrum, the simulation of a packet of noodles, has become the true concept, and the one who packages the product, commodity, or work of art has become the philosopher, conceptual persona, or artist” (1994: 10). (Florida himself is guilty of having done this, incidentally, given how he trademarked the phrase “creative class” and thus transformed concept into commodity.)
Deleuze and Guattari thus have given us insight into why they claim, “We do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it.” In an age in which the news cycle has shrunk from 24 hours to real-time, the ability to stay “on message” has become a crucial marker of a politician’s electability (Kerry the "flip-flopper"), and losing one’s mobile phone has become tantamount to social death, how could communication be anything but superfluous, at least, in most instances? The statement “We lack creation” follows from this. Phenomenology is right, in a way, in that communication is a world-building activity. But we live in an age in which a disproportionate share of communicative activity is directed toward the production of capitalist value and value forms, resulting in a regime of “creativity” so narrowly circumscribed that it’s difficult to imagine how it could continue to be called “creativity” at all.
But what of that strange statement, “We lack resistance to the present?” How does it fit in here? The entire sentence is italicized, giving it the feeling of the crescendo to which Deleuze and Guattari’s arguments about communication, concepts, and creativity have all along been building. Here, though, these arguments are given a distinctly temporal inflection. What’s the nature of the connection here? Why, in the face of communication, should we muster resistance to the present? And what does that even mean? The answers to these questions, unfortunately, are not to be found in the pages of What Is Philosophy?
Bergsonism is Deleuze’s most profound statement on the philosophy of history, and it’s there that we might begin to glean what, exactly, “the present” means. In Bergsonism, Deleuze executes a profound reversal of a commonsense understanding of time—you might call it modern, rational time—in which past, present, and future refer respectively to what was, what is, and what will be. Such a conceptualization, Deleuze argues, mistakes a culturally and historically specific, i.e., learned, perception of time for its true being, a move that unsatisfactorily subordinates the ontological to the epistemological.
Despite what we may think we know, the present isn’t what “is.” The present is fleeting, ephemeral, neither here nor there, forever passing us by. The past, similarly, isn’t what “was.” If anything, it provides a ready stock of physical, experiential, and discursive resources we can summon and build on. For example, every time I go to write, I draw on the accumulated experience of my past as a writer; I do so in an effort not to repeat my mistakes (split infinitives, sentence fragments, noun-verb agreement, etc.); and in effect, by writing I render my past present. We therefore might say, with Deleuze, not that the past “was” and the present “is,” but rather, just the opposite: the past “is,” and the present “was” (1991: 55).
The whole point of the present is not to persist, therefore, but rather to pass, and it is precisely this movement that holds both past and present open to becoming—the creative process by which reality transforms and the future unfolds.
We know from What Is Philosophy? that communication is the enemy of creation. Could it be, then, that communication assumes this role by forestalling the passing of the present—by rendering the present present, as it were? In other words, does communication cause the present to protract rather than to contract, thereby slowing the becoming of the real, or perhaps even bringing it sometimes to a grinding halt? Communication, so conceived, would seem to short-circuit the being of time. What’s more, when the present is allowed to endure, the result can only be existential torpor.
So when Deluze and Guattari contend “we lack resistance to the present,” they mean we lack resistance to those communicative processes that would cause the present to persist despite itself and thereby impede the whole movement of becoming. This is depressing news for communication scholars, to put it mildly, given the redemptive power with which we have tended to endow communication as both idea and practice. How, then, might we resist “the present,” if not by communicative means?
Part of what’s at stake here, and what I suppose has been at stake all along, is how Deleuze and Guattari define communication. Can we imagine forms of communication—or maybe it would be safer here to say “discursive practice”—that would lend themselves to something other than “clichés” (1994: 204) “interminable discussion” (79), and ultimately, existential languor? In other words, is there any modality of communication that wouldn’t make history stop, but rather would make history go?
The answer, I believe, is the question, or to be less convoluted about it, the act of questioning itself. “What are you doing here?” “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” “Must you always drink so much?” “Isn’t torture acceptable when there’s a ticking time-bomb?” “Where do we site the landfill?” “Are you, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” “What could you possibly see in him?” “Isn’t collective security more important than individual liberty?” “Does this article deserve to be published?” “What is Enlightenment?” “Should we use protection?” Not all questions are profound, admittedly, but even so, the power of the interrogative lies in its capacity to provoke qualitative changes in reality. It does so, significantly, by providing a resource for posing problems (Deleuze, 1987: 1).
It’s a shame that “problem” is such a hackneyed word in ordinary usage. In Deleuze and Guattari’s oeuvre, it’s anything but that. Deleuze, specifically, borrows the term “problem” from Henri Bergson, for whom it holds a special place in relationship to creative process. So much of what gets labeled “creative” work, both Bergson and Deleuze contend, is preoccupied with finding the solutions to problems others have devised. In this way, so-called “creative” work habitually disposes itself to a reactive mode of operating, because it executes its labor within sets of parameters, terms, and conditions others already have dictated or imposed. True creativity, and thus real power, they claim, are to be found not in the solving problems, but in the posing them: “As if we would not remain slaves so long as we do not control the problems themselves, so long as we do not possess a right to the problems, to a participation in and management of the problems,” observes Deleuze (1994: 158; see also Bergson, 1992: 51). What makes problems powerful, assuming they’re well posed,3 is that they introduce wrinkles into the fabric of reality, causing it to start twisting and turning, bunching and tearing, unfolding, and refolding. In other words, problems are what spur on becoming; they’re what actuate history. “[T]he history of man [sic], from the theoretical as much as the practical point of view, is that of the construction of problems.” Deleuze states. “It is here that humanity makes its own history” (1991: 16).
Let us raise a question here: In what other context does Deleuze address the question of problem and problematizing? The ninth section of The Logic of Sense is entitled "Ninth Series of the Problematic." In this section, Deleuze (1990) is concerned with the concept of the event. His statement that "The mode of the event is the problematic" (p. 54) is worth pondering further. The relationship between pure event (a virtual structure resembling Plato's realm of Ideas) and actual events (historical and empirical actualizations of the pure event) is explained as the relationship between a problem and its solutions in that events are "problematic and problematizing" (p. 54). As Patton (1997) has pointed out, Deleuze's concept of the event is inspired by the Stoics. In fact, The Logic of Sense effectively starts with the Stoics: "Preface: From Lewis Carroll to the Stoics" (p. xiii). Might there be a productive line of questioning we can pursue if we problematize the notion of (mediated/mediatized) communication via "resistance to present" in relationship to the repetition (and difference) that is entailed in the notion of pure event and the variable repetition in instantiations of it, as they appear in mediatized forms?
Would it be fair to say, then, that problem solving lends itself to “too much communication,” that is, significantly, to incessant commentary, to talk about talk, or to what Henri Lefebvre disapprovingly calls “metalanguage” (1984: 127-136)? If so, would it then be fair to say that problem posing opens up opportunities for creation, becoming, and thus for “resistance to the present?” Could this be why, in Judith Butler’s work, we find interspersed throughout her narrative prose whole paragraphs consisting of questions, nothing but questions? Could this also be why Lawrence Grossberg has suggested that cultural studies “has to question its own questions,” and that “the most difficult part of any project in cultural studies is often to figure out what the question is” (1996: 3)? Why else would Raymond Williams insist that a truly democratic classroom is one in which students “have this more basic right to define the questions” (1996: 173)? In the end, isn’t it the responsibility of the question not to communicate, but instead to liberate critique from communication itself?
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- 1. Recently Canadian poet Christian Bök has tried to reverse the radical asymmetricality of Silliman's language experiment by posing some of Silliman's questions to ALICE ("a natural language processing chatterbot" ): the ensuing answers formed the poem he entitled "Busted Sirens."
- 2. Perhaps there is a parallel here to the arguments of Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker who, in The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007) argue, that what are often termed network accidents (worms, disease epidemics, etc.) are actually instances of networks working too well (p. 5-6) (i.e. too much communication).
- 3. As Bergson notes, a problem well posed is, in essence (i.e., virtually), a problem solved (1992: 51).