Myths of mastery and transparency

Negotiations 1972-1990 - Michel de Certeau
October 10, 1997

It has become a cliche of our times to reject the universal, to remove old certainties, to question our understanding of ourselves, of others and of the world. What these two books do can be placed in this - extremely broad - tradition, but, thank goodness, only insofar as they both show ways in which this need not be a counsel of intellectual despair; that indeed we can do concrete, positive work.

Gilles Deleuze's book is a series of letters and conversations spanning nearly 20 years of his work. They cover wide-ranging concerns, from what is wrong with psychoanalysis to cinema, philosophy, his work on Michel Foucault and the political implications of philosophy. The blurb describes the book as, among other things, a "point of entry" to his thought, and advisedly: the reader is drawn compellingly into the drama of philosophy, but will not find anything like a systematic overview of Deleuze's views. What we do find is a series of seductive, sometimes dazzling, sometimes irritating glimpses of the man and his thought.

Deleuze rejects the notion of universals on the grounds that they do not explain anything but must themselves be explained; truth is not rejected, but is secondary to considerations of usefulness for solving real problems. Claims such as these have been made before, of course, but what is of most interest is his idea of what a philosopher does: which is always to create concepts, which must always be new - there is no place for mere reflection in philosophy, nor - shock horror - for discussion or debate. Concepts that are new kids on the block will always arouse intense interest in the philosopher. And, with Deleuze's style, philosophy truly does spring to life on these pages. But no reflection, no discussion? What is all this?

In fact there is plenty of room for some kind of creative communication in Deleuze's work, and he talks elegantly, for instance, about his writing relationship with Felix Guattari and his book on Foucault. But the language he uses cries out for attention. Those who misinterpret are "stupid, malicious", and he speaks repeatedly of "people who like us" and "allies". On this level philosophy seems to come down to a battle of school-yard gangs. Philosophy becomes intensely personal: to understand a philosopher one must see his or her work as a whole. He has some points here, but the work makes crystal clear how much at variance are differing philosophical traditions.

Jeremy Ahearne's careful study of Michel de Certeau is in a very different mould. Certeau's work covered many areas including epistemology, psychoanalysis, politics and early modern religious history. Ahearne focuses on Certeau's work from 1970 until his death in 1986, and on questions of interpretation in historiography, attempting to produce in this first full-length study an overview of recurring themes that will be of interest to those new to this complex thinker and to those already versed in some aspects. We are taken through a detailed questioning of the very possibilities of knowledge and of communication with others.

Certeau questions myths of interpretative mastery and transparency. These have been well challenged, but Certeau wishes to expose limits rather than invalidate, and the principal thrust of his work is that the historian should indeed do something with the debris of history. He shows us this by looking at concrete tasks and conditions of possibility. Naturally we look at the past in our own terms, but Certeau fleshes out this mere truism by displaying the structured, discrete operations the interpreter brings to traces of past lives. By doing so he hopes to probe the blind spots of contemporary thought.

A principal concern is the place of written texts themselves in the social order, how these are privileged over the oral, and how bias can creep into history here. As Deleuze creates new concepts, Certeau strives to open new conceptual and symbolic spaces. He attempts to provide a legitimate space for writings and readings that are generally disqualified as uninformed. Residual structures of the past come back to haunt us, often unknowingly, and Certeau also questions the myth of separation from tradition in modern writing practices. That being so, one wonders about Deleuze's certainties about the creation of "new" concepts, and about his seemingly sharp divide between the creation of concepts and reflection on them. It is exactly this kind of idiocy about newness of thought that either paralyses beginning undergraduates or leads them to produce self-indulgent nonsense. Or do I misinterpret you, M. Deleuze?

Paula Boddington is lecturer in philosophy, Australian National University.

Negotiations 1972-1990

Author - Gilles Deluze
ISBN - 0 231 07580 4
Publisher - Columbia University Press
Price - £.00
Pages - 221
Translator - Martin Joughin

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