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Gilles Deleuze - Biography

Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995)

Gilles Deleuze was born in 1925 in the 17th arrondisment of Paris, where he continued to live his entire life except for short periods of his youth. His father was a veteran of World War I and an engineer. His brother was arrested for resistance activities during the German occupation of France and was killed on route to Auschwitz. Deleuze went to public school before the war, and when the Germans invaded he was on vacation in Normandy. He stayed in Normandy for a year and continued his schooling there, inspired by a tutor to read Gide and Baudelaire among other texts, which he cites as his first positive experience in academia. He returned to Paris and attended the Lycée Carnot, then studied at Henri IV where he did his kâgne (a year of studies for exceptional students). From 1944 to 1948 he went on to study philosophy at the Sorbonne where he counted among his friends Michel Buro, Michel Tournier and François Châtelet. His professors included Ferdinand Aliquié (a specialist in Descartes and the philosophy of Surrealism), Georges Canguilhem (Foucault's supervisor), and Jean Hyppolite (a specialist in Hegelian philosophy). He gained his aggregation in philosophy in 1948, then taught philosophy in various Paris lycées until 1957. In 1953 he published his first book, Empiricism and Subjectivity, on David Hume. In 1956 he married Denise Paul "Fanny" Grandjouan, a translator who specialized in D.H. Lawrence. In 1957 he began teaching history of philosophy at the Sorbonne, and from 1960-64 he was a researcher with the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique.

Deleuze held a number of assistant teaching positions in universities over the next ten years, and in 1962 he published Nietzsche and Philosophy. It was during this time that he began a long-standing friendship with Michel Foucault. They met one another at the home of Jules Vuillemin, when Foucault was petitioning to have Deleuze nominated for a position at the University of Clermont-Ferrand. Deleuze taught from 1964-69 at the University of Lyon, then took a position as professor of philosophy at Vincennes at the behest of Foucault. In 1968 Deleuze published his doctoral thesis comprised of a major thesis, Différence et répétition (Difference and Repetition), and a minor thesis, Spinoza et le problems de l'expression (Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza). In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze works with the nature of thought, identity and time, and the book poses a significant disruption to the canonical traditions of philosophy, an attitude that he would become known for in his body of work in general. 1968 would also mark the first major incidence of pulmonary illness that would weigh on Deleuze his entire life.

Deleuze was among the first thinkers to register the events of May 1968 in conceptual terms. His response to the student uprisings combined with his elegant ability to think through the various disciplines of politics, psychoanalysis, literature and philosophy, made him a celebrated philosopher of the generation. In 1969 he took a teaching position at the experimental University of Paris VII, and he continued to teach here until his retirement in 1987. It was at Paris VII that he met Félix Guattari, who became his partner in writing a number of influential texts including the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Anti-Oedipus (1972) and A Thousand Plateaus (1980). These texts came about as an expression of the political environment in France during May 1968, and are a continued development of many of Deleuze's philosophical concerns such as commitment to an immanent ontology, the position of the social and political at the core of being, and the affirmation of difference over transcendental hierarchy. The unique manner in which these books were written, between the two writers and not separately, allows for the emergence in the text of elements that cannot be attributed to either one of the authors on their own. Many ideas central to Deleuze's work undergo a fascinating transformation and move in unexpected directions, or as Deleuze and Guattari might put it, they undergo a process of "becoming." In an interview Deleuze talks about the intent and process in the making of Capitalism an Schizophrenia:

"We don't claim to have written a madman's book, just a book in which one no longer knows-and there is no reason to know- who exactly is speaking, a doctor, a patient, an untreated patient, a present, past of future patient. That's why we used so many writers and poets; who is to say if they are speaking as patients or doctors- patients or doctors of civilization. Now, strangely, if we have tried to go beyond this traditional duality, it's precisely because we were writing together. Neither of us was the madman, neither of us was the psychiatrist; there had to be two of us in order to find a process that was not reduced either to the psychiatrist or his madman, or to a madman and his psychiatrist.
The process is what we call a flux. Now, once again, the flux is a notion that we wanted to remain ordinary and undefined. This could be a flux of words, ideas, shit, money, it could be a financial mechanism or a schizophrenic machine: it goes beyond all dualities. We dreamed of this book as a flux-book."
(from "In Flux" in Chaosophy. By Felix Guattari, Semiotext[e], NY, 1995.)

After the publication of Anti-Oedipus, L'Arc dedicated an issue to Deleuze in which an interview is printed with Foucault. The interview records the two men defining the status of the contemporary intellectual in light of the social and political characteristics particular to the time. Deleuze was politically active through many outlets. Of particular concern to him were homosexual rights and the Palestinian liberation movement, and he was a member of an organization formed in part by Foucault, the Groupe d'information sur les prisons. When Foucault died in 1984, Deleuze paid him the honor of dedicating a book to the study of his work entitled Foucault (1986).

Deleuze wrote many books dedicated to the work of other practitioners, and his work is full of unexpected references, often citing obscure authors. He wrote on film (The Movement-Image (1983) and The Time-Image (1985)), painting (Francis Bacon (1981)), and much on literature, including books on Proust (Proust and Signs 1964), Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (Coldness and Cruelty 1969), and Kafka (Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature 1975), and texts on authors such as F. Scott Fizgerald, Herman Melville, Samuel Beckett, Antonin Artaud, Heinrich von Kleist, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. These texts do not constitute a philosophy of the arts, but represent philosophical encounters with specific artistic productions, consistent with Deleuze's approach in all his work of dedication to the creation of new philosophical concepts.

Deleuze wrote about philosophers all through his life, with books on Hume, Kant, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, Leibniz, and Foucault. He approached each one with the constructivist attitude, expressed clearly in What is Philosophy? (1991), that these re-readings are done with the motivation of creating concepts that are not pre-existing. He was a strong critic of the history of philosophy, its hegemonic structuring of thought and its traditional style of 'reflection': "The philosopher creates, he doesn't reflect." He wrote: "An image of thought called philosophy has been formed historically and it effectively stops people from thinking." What is Philosophy? was Deleuze's final collaboration with Guattari, who died in 1992. The book takes a critical approach to philosophy, looking at its presuppositions, its relationship to science and art, and the creation of concepts. They write that concepts are active and affective, rather than signifiers of the contents of ideas. "[Philosophers] must no longer accept concepts as a gift, nor merely purify or polish them, but first make and create them, present them and make them convincing."

Immanence was a key word for Deleuze, returning time and again throughout his texts. The term refers to what he called his empiricist philosophy based on the empirical real without recourse to the transcendental. Deleuze insists that philosophy, rather than setting up transcendentals, must approach the immanent conditions of that which it is trying to think. Thought must create movement and consequences. His last text was entitled "Immanence: a life…". It was published only months before his death. His last book was a collection of essays called Essays Critical and Clinical (1993). By the time of its publication Deleuze's pulmonary illness had put him in severe confinement, making it difficult for him to write. He took his own life on November 4th, 1995.