In a conversation he had with Michel Foucault in 1972 (L’Arc (No. 49, pp. 3-10)), Gilles Deleuze uses a quote from French literary author Marcel Proust to illustrate his interpretation of how intellectuals should consider their theoretical work:
A theory is exactly like a box of tools. It has nothing to do with the signifier. It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it, beginning with the theoretician himself (who then ceases to be a theoretician), then the theory is worthless or the moment is inappropriate. We don’t revise a theory, but construct new ones; we have no choice but to make others. It is strange that it was Proust, an author thought to be a pure intellectual, who said it so clearly: treat my book as a pair of glasses directed to the outside; if they don’t suit you, find another pair; I leave it to you to find your own instrument, which is necessarily an investment for combat.
A theory does not totalise; it is an instrument for multiplication and it also multiplies itself. It is in the nature of power to totalise and it is your position. and one I fully agree with, that theory is by nature opposed to power. As soon as a theory is enmeshed in a particular point, we realise that it will never possess the slightest practical importance unless it can erupt in a totally different area. This is why the notion of reform is so stupid and hypocritical. Either reforms are designed by people who claim to be representative, who make a profession of speaking for others, and they lead to a division of power, to a distribution of this new power which is consequently increased by a double repression; or they arise from the complaints and demands of those concerned. This latter instance is no longer a reform but revolutionary action that questions (expressing the full force of its partiality) the totality of power and the hierarchy that maintains it. This is surely evident in prisons: the smallest and most insignificant of the prisoners’ demands can puncture Pleven’s [French Prime Minister in the 50’s] pseudoreform. If the protests of children were heard in kindergarten, if their questions were attended to, it would be enough to explode the entire educational system. There is no denying that our social system is totally without tolerance; this accounts for its extreme fragility in all its aspects and also its need for a global form of repression. In my opinion, you [Michel Foucault] were the first-in your books and in the practical sphere-to teach us something absolutely fundamental: the indignity of speaking for others. We ridiculed representation and said it was finished, but we failed to draw the consequences of this “theoretical” conversion-to appreciate the theoretical fact that only those directly concerned can speak in a practical way on their own behalf.
This quote from Marcel Proust (if Deleuze did not make it up in a strategical production of knowledge) is fundamental in the creation of any form of theory, and even further, in the creation of any ethics. I understand ethics here in a Spinozist way; as the individual or collective continuous production of a coherent narrative that interpret each act as either good or bad -I insist on “bad” and not “evil”- in relation to this system. In other words, the notion of truth or good can only exist relatively to a subjective system of interpretation.
It would be a mistake, however, to confuse this statement with the post modern usual affirmation -that severely injured the importance of the political debate in the Western World- according to which “everything is relative and therefore equal”. A system of interpretation gains as much value as it acquire coherency and the potential antagonism created between those systems requires them to be understood in a logic of combat.
If I use an example that is important to me, I would say that the system of interpretations that is being developed by an Orthodox Jewish settler in the West Bank appears to me as being coherent. In his interpretation of the world, God which is the most important entity in his life, gave to his people a piece of land that he now consider as his. Nothing would be more important than this statement, not the Human Justice nor the respect of other humans’ life. However, there are a lot of us out there who integrated in our system of interpretations that those notions of human justice (a justice that has been elaborated by the humans) and respect of the people (both individually and as a nation) are the fundamental bases to fund our interpretation of the world.
Those two systems are so contradictory -yet both coherent- that they cannot establish the bases of any form of understanding between them. They therefore have to collide and throw as much energy in this combat as the constituted ethics require them to do.
Another example, to go back to Deleuze yet stay within the Israeli-Palestinian combat, would be to evoke his concept -elaborated with Felix Guattari- of the war machine (see previous article). In fact, the war machine as thought by those two thinkers, was a strategical formation against the State Apparatus. Clearly, in their understanding of this combat (both Deleuze and Foucault engaged in that sense), the Palestinian people had to constitute such a formation to fight against the State organized oppression they suffer of. Nevertheless, this notion of war machine along with others elaborated in A Thousand Plateaus have been since then been used by the Israeli Army of Occupation and its Operational Theory Research Institute as points out Eyal Weizman in his very famous and very instructive essay Lethal Theory that I referenced many time in my writings. As a matter of fact, my former professor Catherine Ingraham was also very shocked as well to learn that her Burdens of Linearity was also taught in this military institute.
It is not by chance that Deleuze’s philosophy has been adapted this way to a purpose that was not his. His own system is indeed built in an open -one could say democratic- way, as a toolbox as he says along with Foucault who wrote in 1975 in the French newspaper Le Monde:
All my books are little tool-boxes. If people want to pen them, to use this sentence or that idea as a screwdriver or spanner to short-circuit, discredit systems of power, including eventually those from which my books emerged…so much the better.