In 1991 Deleuze and Guattari wrote What Is Philosophy?, contributing to the tradition of philosophers thinking the foundations of their discipline. In the opening passages they write:
Instead of being seized by it, those who asked the question set it out and controlled it in passing. They were not sober enough. There was too much desire to do philosophy to wonder what it was, except as a stylistic exercise. That point of nonstyle where one can finally say, “What is it I have been doing all my life?” had not been reached. There are times when old age produces not eternal youth but a sovereign freedom, a pure necessity in which one enjoys a moment of grace between life and death, and in which all the parts of the machine come together to send into the future a feature that cuts across all ages.
Reflection on the meaning of philosophy is indeed something philosophers have obsessed over and Deleuze and Guattari are not alone in the attempt to answer this question. They imagine they are singular in their seriousness, that others saw such reflection only as a “stylistic exercise” or were “not sober enough”, but this is performative dross. A decade and a half ago, when I still cared about Deleuze and Guattari, I saw this statement as definitive, along with their work in general, but now I see it more as a correct assessment made for the wrong reasons. One doesn’t have to be “old” to reflect on this question, but it is worth meditating on the final statement: what is this “machine” of philosophy and its parts that “come together”… what is this “future feature that cuts across all ages”?
Around seven years ago I began work on three manuscripts simultaneously. Jumping back and forth between these projects ensured that each of them would be overdetermined by the others and that, when published separately, readers might miss the ways in which arguments established in one manuscript affected arguments in another. These manuscripts were Continuity and Rupture, a still untitled treatise on the problem of economism, and what will now be published as Demarcation and Demystification. Although I pursued the publication of Continuity and Rupture first because I felt it was the most politically important manuscript of this trio, Demarcation and Demystification was the conceptual linch-pin of this simultaneous writing process since it explained the method of my philosophical madness. Indeed, the language I worked to establish in Demarcation and Demystification (particularly the metaphor of the “theoretical terrain”) haunted Continuity and Rupture, along with throwaway statements about the role and meaning of philosophy that confused more than a few readers.
With the publication of Demarcation and Demystification maybe the man behind the curtain of Continuity and Rupture will be revealed. At the very least readers will better understand what I meant by “Maoist terrain” in the latter work and how I conceptualized my role as a philosopher in regards to this terrain. Whereas the former work was conceptually fundamental, the latter work was politically fundamental, and my decision to pursue the publication of C&R before the publication of D&D was determined by the political situation. That and the fact that I was aware that readers would be less interested in an exposé of the meaning of a Marxist practice of philosophy than the meaning of a revolutionary tendency of Marxism.
D&D went through multiple alterations from the time of its conception to its late publication, the least of which was its title. After years of being untitled, I planned to name it after the fictional conceit I would eventually use for its prologue as an extended metaphor: a story by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. I chose this story before becoming close, over Twitter, with its author, and before I collaborated on a book with her, while I was tinkering with the manuscript after C&R was being prepped for publication. Indeed, my treatment of this story made me seek out a writing relationship with its author that would result in the publication of Methods Devour Themselves, pushing D&D back by over a year. And my initial naming of D&D, based on the extended fictional analogy of its prologue, was The Denouement Machine, which was also a reference to the notion of “machine” in the Deleuze and Guattari quote above. I even mentioned this name of the manuscript in a footnote in Methods Devour Themselves. Unfortunately the name was too vague, as the editors helpfully pointed out, and so I renamed it after submission.
And here we are with a document that will finally be published, after years of being the generative text of my work, with a title whose acronym is also the acronym of the game my nerd self played in elementary school in the late 80s and early 90s. So if you want to imagine this book as the D20 of Marxist philosophy, I’m more than happy to collaborate.
A question that everyone studying and/or teaching philosophy will be familiar with is the one that Deleuze and Guattari asked above: “what is philosophy?”. It is the question undergraduate students ask and that we ourselves asked, either to professors or ourselves, and it is a question addressed in hundreds of philosophy books about philosophy. It is a question I am asked outside of my job when people learn that my doctorate is in philosophy. I was even asked this question during a strike by a tenured biology professor who was angry at contract faculty for inconveniencing him with a picket line: he thought that philosophy should be eradicated from university, and though he didn’t know what it was in the first place he still felt that his biology degree qualified him to dismiss the discipline.
Usually when we are asked this question we give stock answers like “critical thinking” or “the discipline of thinking thought” or something else important sounding. Sometimes we have pithy quotes by famous philosophers that sound clever. Wittgenstein had a good one that makes an appearance in D&D: “the logical clarification of thoughts.” But these pat answers aren’t satisfactory by themselves; they require entire classes to unpack. Sometimes we try to answer by appealing to the illustrious history of philosophy and how it was the root of all the disciplines. Other times we define it by its sub-disciplines (ontology/metaphysics, logic, ethics/politics, epistemology, aesthetics, etc.). But explanations of a discipline’s history or its characteristics are not conceptual definitions.
The problem, if it is indeed a problem, is that philosophy has been so concerned with examining the meaning of concepts, and that it was doing this before thought was fractured into distinct disciplines, that it did not have to think of itself as a distinct discipline until the modern era. Whereas the sciences had to be founded as distinct conceptual pursuits (and in fact philosophy helped with this since the basis of modern science was conceived of by philosophers who were also scientists)––as well as the social sciences, psychology, and everything else that now forms the contemporary university––philosophy, and western philosophy in particular, never had to think of itself as distinct until this moment of fracture.
To be fair, it is only philosophy that seems concerned about providing a conceptual definition of these disciplines, including itself. Perhaps we cannot be frustrated that philosophy lacks an agreement about the meaning of itself as a discipline when other disciplines don’t seem to be overly obsessed with this problem. For example, you don’t find Physics, Biology, Mathematics, or Chemistry concerned with defining their inner meaning; they define themselves by what they do without worrying about a general manifesto of their disciplinary meaning. Courses about the conceptual meaning of the sciences are, in point of fact, philosophy courses.
For the ancients philosophy was not a distinct discipline because it was the only discipline: Plato and Aristotle saw themselves as investigators of all forms of knowledge which, in their minds, merely represented different types of philosophy. Perhaps because of this canonized past philosophy remains the only discipline to retain concern for the distinct meanings of the avenues of thought resulting from its fracture. Philosophy has been in mourning since it was torn asunder by modernity; the obsessive need to categorize knowledge that is no longer its own is an extended eulogy it speaks only to itself.
Now it seems as if I’m again appealing to the history of philosophy to avoid talking about a definition of philosophy. This is not the case: rather I am appealing to this history to demonstrate the distance between the past understanding of philosophy and what philosophy has become after the materialist intervention best represented by Marx and Engels, which is one of the concerns of D&D. Because if we want to understand what philosophy not only is now but what it has always been at root, we have to demystify the history of philosophy, stripping it of the aura that it once commanded and that its worst contemporary interlocutors hope to revive.
According to ancient philosophy, what we now call science was “natural philosophy” and what we now call the oldest and most antiquated form of philosophy, ontology, was called “first philosophy”. Philosophy had names for other forms of knowledge investigation (which is where we get all the sub-disciplines from) as well, all of which were less important than ontology. Hence, philosophy recognized various knowledge practices with discreet concerns (whether they be about biology, physics, ethics, art, etc.) and unified these under the field of philosophy-qua-philosophy that we now call ontology or metaphysics. Only the truly wise philosopher could understand the order of being behind things, the scaffolding of reality, and this order structured all the less important areas of investigation. For Plato this was the theory of forms; for Aristotle it was the four causes; other philosophers had their own ontologies right up to the present.
Althusser––who was always at his clearest when it came to thinking the meaning of philosophy, but less clear when it came to so many other issues––recognized that philosophy’s emergence, everywhere in the world, was based on an attempt to replace religious authority while simultaneously descending from religion. In Philosophy for Non-Philosophers he writes:
Philosophy inherited this question of questions, the question of the Origin of the World, which is the question of the world, humanity and God. It had no choice but to maintain it (to criticize it was a heresy punishable by burning at the stake). But philosophy did not maintain it in its religious simplicity, that of a narrative or sequence of grand mythical images. It filled it with conceptual content, that of abstract, rational thought. (27–28)
Hence, philosophy sought to be what religion was (and still is), the fundamental basis for thinking reality. “Philosophy, then, descended from religion,” he elaborates, “took up religion’s questions again.” (31) But from a different practice, one that began to speak of logic and conceptual thinking, that attempted to formally displace the authority of priestly dogma. Plato has no patience for the priestly order (this is what lurks behind his hatred of the ancient poets who were, we must remember, religious augurs) and bans its representatives from his Republic… And yet he replaces them with another mythology and a metaphysical order of pure concepts. Philosophy thus reserves for itself the privilege that was once the province of religion: the deep, metaphysical meaning of existence.
Over two millennia later things have changed for philosophy but this problem of what Laruelle calls “the philosophical decision” still lingers. (To be clear I think Laruelle ultimately misconceives this “philosophical decision” and does the very same thing he criticizes, but I’ll leave that discussion for my book.) On the one hand we have the ontological concerns of so-called “Continental Philosophy” that often stray into confusing obscurantisms; on the other hand we have the tradition of “Analytic Philosophy” that pretends to renounce the practice of ontological mysticism while believing it alone can declare the scaffolding of reality.
At the same time, however, there is a Marxist intervention upon this history of philosophy that has shaken the entire field and contributed to the ways in which philosophy is pursued, even when it attempts to make itself fundamental. This intervention, which demystifies philosophy and demonstrates what it was always about, boils down to a statement Marx made in his eleventh thesis in the Theses on Feuerbach: “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”
Demarcation and Demystification is based on this intervention, in grasping the meaning of philosophy in its aftermath, and reading the entire history and definition of philosophy in this light. Just as the Marxist intervention demystified the meaning of history and society through the conceptualization of class struggle, it demystified thought itself. Part of this thought is philosophical thought that finally, as I argue, can be understood materially for what it always was. And once we understand what it was, stripped of its mystification, we can also understand it as a radical practice.
So what remains of philosophy once we strip it of the halo of its authority, of the philosophical decision of ontology? That’s what Demarcation and Demystification is about and the only reason I’m not explaining fully here is because this is a promotional essay: pick up the book if you’re intrigued.
I want to conclude by returning to Deleuze and Guattari’s What Is Philosophy? Although Deleuze and Guattari factor very little into my upcoming book, they are criticized in passing and thus haunt the text. One of my friends who wrote a blurb for D&D wondered whether much of this book, especially its use of the “terrain” metaphor, was an intentional rejection of Deleuzian categories of immanence, particularly in my usage of similar topographical terms (i.e. analogies adjacent to Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology of territorialization/deterritorialization). Until he asked this question I hadn’t thought of this. But now I must admit that there is some truth in this juxtaposition, given my previous self’s appreciation of Deleuze and Guattari, particularly since I did not engage directly with their work on the meaning of philosophy.
By the time I began writing this treatise on philosophy I had left Deleuze and Guattari far behind, abandoning them to the ashes of thought, because I recognized that they contributed very little to an emancipatory project. We do not encounter anything that resembles their understanding of resistance and organizing in the concrete revolutionary movements that have manifested during their time to the present. The radical form of their work––which is generated by their definition of philosophy––lacks revolutionary content that is concretely applicable. Appearance belies substance… but it is easy, once we begin with a particular continental definition of philosophy (not that particular analytical definitions are better) which is also their definition, to become lost in this pseudo-radicalism that veils more of the same movementist banality. This does not mean that there are not useful notions that can be mined in their work and detached from their framework. After all, Marx and Engels performed similar acts of salvage, as did Lenin and so many others. My point here is that, the period in which I wrote D&D was also a period where I had left behind these two thinkers I once admired and yet, without realizing it, had incorporated them implicitly into my project as unspoken foils.
Thus the absence of Deleuze and Guattari in D&D, and the way their absence influenced my analogical terminology, was telling in retrospect. The weight of academic training weighs on the brain as its own legacy of dead generations. We are always trying to put the bad faith alliances of our past to rest, even when we don’t realize we are doing so, and this is part of being a philosopher. The chains of the tradition are powerful; we might think through the meaning of these chains but are not always able to remember the dimension of every link. But since philosophy is an unfolding conversation, and the philosopher is not above their influences or what readers bring to the conversation, we can understand our own practice better when read through the lens of our readers.
But back to What Is Philosophy? and the core definition of philosophy Deleuze and Guattari present us with: “philosophy is the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts.” And this starting definition is where the problem begins, a problem I discussed in the book (even referring to Deleuze and Guattari but only in passing), and a problem that renders philosophical practice arcane. One of my complaints about a certain approach to philosophy––an approach paradigmatically defined by thinkers such as Deleuze and Guattari––is that theory is conflated with philosophy. That is, the process of “forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts” is the business of theoretical terrains, and not philosophy, the most significant of these terrains being scientific terrains. The formation and invention of concepts is the formation and invention of truth processes and this is not what philosophical practice ought to be following the materialist break represented by Marx and Engels. Rather, philosophy is that which clarifies concepts that are presented by theoretical terrains, demarcating their meaning.
To begin with the assumption that philosophy is a practice of inventing and fabricating concepts is to presume precisely what every academic undergraduate imagines that philosophy is about: making shit up, saying whatever the hell you want to say about reality, as long as you sound clever and profound. Which is precisely the project of innumerable continental philosophers: concepts are divorced from concrete processes, turned into occulted meditations that lack any kind of justification. Again: Deleuze and Guattari’s definition of philosophy fits a very “continental” perspective of academic philosophy where style and aesthetic invention are considered more important than rigour and logical precision.
(Again, I don’t think “analytic” philosophy is any better in this regard considering that, by and large, it remains trapped within a positivism that transforms reality into sets of crude propositions. Whereas continental philosophy generally embarks on grandiose claims that conflate theory with philosophy, occulting reality and generating various forms of obscurantism, analytic philosophy tends to limit itself to the zone of bourgeois reality––taking the ruling ideas of the ruling class as either given or outside of the realm of its operations––and tinkers with the meaning of the state of affairs.)
My understanding of philosophy, which is driven by Marx and Engels’ thoughts on the matter, is far less grandiose. I think that the concepts that matter, that can be designated as part of larger truth procedures, are generated by various theoretical terrains (with historical materialism being the only meaningful terrain of social and historical concepts), and that philosophical practice is more about enunciating and clarifying these concepts, demarcating them from each other, and less about inventing them on a lark. Philosophy loses its way, as I argue in D&D, when it imagines that it can say and invent whatever it wishes. At best it replicates the “first philosophy” inventions of the ancients; at worst it becomes an opinion-generating machine divorced from the concrete.
In the end, Demarcation and Demystification represents the only rigorous and prolonged study centred within my discipline that I will likely ever write. “Likely ever” because I cannot know for certain where my writing will take me in the future. If there is a closure enacted by this work, it is that I’ve made my peace with the ghostly authority of philosophy-qua-philosophy by dragging its corpse from the ivory tower sepulcher and into the profane world of the common graveyard so as to be salted and cremated. The memorial following an exorcism as the inauguration of closure. Or, more accurately, of denouement as the last paragraph of this book proclaims:
Philosophy as a denouement machine, an operation that draws the narrative strands of a theoretical terrain together, a weapon wielded against the ancestral lines of enemy terrains; the philosopher as the agent who engages with this operation/weapon in the interest of clarity-through-struggle.