Philosophy and May ’68 (Part 2)

Among the philosophers who exerted a strong influence on pre and post ’68 Continental philosophy was Jacques Deleuze (1925–1985). The latter explored new ways of thinking in his critical and highly original reinterpretations of Leibniz, Hume and especially Nietzsche’s works. as well as in his forays into psychoanalysis with his collaborator and friend Félix Guattari. Their Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, published in 1972, was a brave attempt at redefining the unconscious as a ‘desire-producing machine’ instead of a hidden theatre of repressed drives as conceived by Freud.

The May ’68 student revolt followed by its widespread social movement and a long general strike appeared to Deleuze as a moment of ‘pure truth’ which could lead to a liberation from the mental shackles of a Freudo-Marxist view of the world, then represented by figures like Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse in Germany and Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser in France. Deleuze’s insistence upon the necessity to forge new concepts in the light of new experience bore witness to his rejection of stolid dogmas and his belief in a reality assimilated to a ’rhizome’ or ever-growing organism spreading in a multi layered fashion and interacting with new species.

This notion of layer or ‘plateau’, developed in A Thousand Plateaux, is characterised by the constant possibility of crisscrossing and building possible bridges between the strict territories once called ‘science’ and ‘humanities’. The end of philosophical certainties, already anticipated in May ’68, found its confirmation in this demanding work, published in 1980 and regarded by some as a harbinger of postmodernism. In the meantime, Deleuze had been instrumental in the creation of the short-lived ‘experimental university centre’ known as l’Université de Vincennes Paris VIII. Its mission was to offer a transdisciplinary programme of studies away from the academic format of French universities and their dull preparation for national competitive examinations. 

The perpetual oscillation between experience and knowledge which, since Plato, produced scientific truth and de facto, philosophical wisdom, was critically reassessed and systematically questioned in the works of Deleuze but also Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida. Both thinkers published major works in 1967, the former undertaking a radical archeology of the human sciences in ‘The Order of Things’ while the latter offered in Speech and Phenomena his deconstructive criticism of language and more specifically of ‘logocentrism’ that is, the way words as references to mental and physical entities, convey different meanings and leave an unbridgeable gap between the sound or ‘phoneme’ and the purported meaning of their designated object. Derrida called ‘différAnce’ this shifting interplay of meanings where every signifier (written word) finds itself in an endless play of signifying references, differEnt to itself as its very meaning is forever postponed or ‘deferred’. His concept of ‘différance’, based on a play on the words ‘difference’ and ‘deferring’, enabled Derrida to revisit the history of Philosophy in a unique, often playful, style, borrowing from the endless resources of semiology (or study of signs) to highlight new possible readings of the canonical texts of philosophy.

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