4 Jul 2012

Kneading Friendship: Deleuze, Blanchot, and the Folding of Disciplines

by Corry Shores
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The following is Julie Van der Wielen's and my presentation at the Deleuze, Philosophy, Transdisciplinarity conference at Goldsmiths College, University of London in February of 2012. Thank you Masa Kosugi, Guillaume Collett, and Chryssa Sdrolia for all your help and for organizing the wonderful conference.

Julie Van der WielenCorry Shores

Kneading Friendship:Deleuze, Blanchot, and the Folding of Disciplines

[Corry Shores reads:]

We would like now to explain Deleuze’s appreciation for Blanchot’s idea that friendship is the condition for thought, and as well, how for both of them, friendship is as well philosophy’s path to transdisciplinarity.

[Julie Van Der Wielen reads:]


When you have a friend who tries to get to close to you, or you try to get to close to a friend, either by trying to be the same or by trying to know his deepest thoughts, it will get uncomfortable. Also, we are all aware of the fact that it’s wrong to dispose of knowledge we have from a friend and to talk about the friend when this one is absent. Distance is needed, even between the closest friends. In his reflections about friendship, Blanchot takes the distance between friends as a necessary condition for their relation.

Because the other is irreducibly other and I am inevitably separated from him, a kind of collision takes place between me and the other wherein I’m confronted to a limit: I’m radically different from the other, I can’t posses him and even the possibility of really understanding the other person is questionable. This distance between me and the other, our being radically separated from each other is the precondition for a relation between us. The distance as an interval, an interruption of being or as a no man’s land, is where friendship takes place. In this openness of the interval the other is present and nearby, but this proximity hides and affirms the other as very far-off and belonging to no one. What I see of my friend when I talk to him, when I decipher his gestures or silence is an openness to his thought, nevertheless I will never really access this distant thought. Even in the closest moments, the infinite distance between friends remains.

This is why, in the last chapter of l’Amitie, Blanchot writes on the impossibility to write about his friend Georges Bataille. He doesn’t accept to write on Bataille’s character or on his thoughts because with his death, their relation as separation disappeared and all that is left are memories of that of Bataille which was close to people, not the distant reality where this proximity was the affirmation of. Without the presence of the friend, there is no possible openness to him and his thought. My relation with my friend preserves the openness to his thought. As the presence of my friend and our relation are a condition for me to find a possible openness to him, any grasp on him is out of the question, if without a relation or dialogue with him. Our relation follows an unpredictable course, where presence and dialogue are necessary to openness. For this reason I cannot know univocally who my friend is, and he will always be infinitely far from me. I can only find openness to his thought when we are present to each other, in an unpredictable movement of understanding which makes it impossible for me to get hold on him.

Another name Blanchot gives to the interval between friends, rising from the unpredictability of the other and his absolute strangeness, is discretion. This is not just the outright refusal to make assertions about the friend, or to dispose of knowledge I have of him, it is the pure interval as everything that is between us. The discretion doesn’t prevent communication, it links us up in difference, making communication possible through speech or silence. The interval or discretion is a necessary condition to communication. Real communication implies the acknowledgement of its limit, the distance between two parties. This limit shows it is impossible to talk about my friend but only to talk to him. It is an impossibility which opens up infinite possibility: impossibility of understanding by which we are driven to create new meaning, radical difference that pulls together.

We can see the interval operate in speech: talking together is never actually talking at the same time. Speech goes from one to the other, the talkers take turns. The impossibility to talk together opens up to the possibility of a dialogue. This dialogue follows an unpredictable course since there is always the possibility of contradiction, development or affirmation of my thought by the friend. The impossibility to predict the course of the conversation is a necessary condition to communication.

In a dialogue with a friend I should never claim comprehension of my friend or of fixed meaning. Communication and the relation with my friend is an unpredictable movement rising from the impossibility to get hold on the other. When Blanchot claims friendship is a necessary condition to thought, we should look at it this way: thought should be openness without pretention of fixed meaning, as in friendship communication should be a dialogue with the other as an unpredictable movement. In the Abecedaire, Deleuze paraphrases Blanchot saying friendship is a condition for thought, not because we need friends to think but because the category of friendship is a condition for the exercise of thought.

[Corry Shores reads:]

We also find Deleuze offering a strikingly similar account of friendship. Consider first his example of comedic friends, Laurel and Hardy.

Their cartoonish contrasts suggests they would regard one another as though from a great distance. One is fat, the other skinny; one more extroverted, the other more introverted. Yet, they always seem to be in communion with one another, despite their features that might normally push them apart. It is as if they are constantly together in communication. Even when one is physically distant from the other, we still never sense that there is a break in that continued communicative link that holds them together. But, what about when they seem to miscommunicate, like when Hardy says he is waiting for a streetcar, as if charmed rather than enraged by Laurel’s feigned innocence? Despite the disconnection and absurdity of their messages to one another, they do not break their constant bond of communicative contact.

Is it not as though they share a unique language that makes sense only to them? Would we really be surprised if Laurel and Hardy spent a whole day together without ever saying even one word, while the whole time, still conducting a sort of unspoken dialogue that unfolds without any need for conventional signs?

For Deleuze, our friendships form not on the basis of our explicit messages to one another, but rather on a more profound sort of reading of one another’s implicit and even inexplicable expressions to one another, or what Deleuze here calls signs.

Yet they are not signs in the sense of representations; they instead form a sort of prelanguage. But how are they read, if it is not by means of explicit interpretations? One reason is that they are sensed affectively. Friends are charmed by these implicit messages that reveal something slightly less than sane about the other, something that would only lose its meaning if it were clearly stated. These mutually-affective charming signs pull friends together even though there remains between them something mysterious and unspoken, something that might normally make people feel a distance to one another. And yet, it is not like a secret code that both can decipher. Friends do not share common ideas. They do not necessarily know what the other means, although they still know that they are saying something meaningful to one another.

Deleuze even discusses his own friendships to further illustrate. When he and his hypo-chondriac friend-converse, there might seem to be an absurd disconnect between what they say to one another. For example, if Deleuze asks him how he is doing, his friend replies “like a cork tossed by the sea.” But with Guattari, they may both just simply observe to one another that they have the same brand of hat. In the first case of communication, their explicit meanings did not need to cleanly match for them to read their deeper inexplicable signs. Yet, in the second case of noticing the same hats, it seems they say nothing important at all to one another; but nonetheless, something more profound transpired between them.

Now, to understand why Deleuze appreciates Blanchot’s point that friendship is the condition for thought, we will turn to Deleuze’s discussion of neurophysiology. What we will then suggest is that a friendship of disciplines happens not when they completely understand one another, but when they like friends are sensitive to each other’s inexplicable and charming signs.

We make this connection, because Deleuze talks in similar terms when discussing the brain activity at work in our thinking.

[Clips should be played and viewed simultaneously, if possible]

The brain’s production of ideas is a bit like the activities in a pinball machine. Neural electrical events often occur randomly, indeterminately, and probabilistically. Also, there are both continuous and discontinuous communications between neural circuits. Deleuze notes how very distant neurons can make a ‘jump’ over their gap in this probabilistic scheme.

To further illustrate, he describes a mathematical concept called the baker’s transformation. It gets its name from the procedure that bakers perform when kneading bread dough. They stretch it, which makes it flatter. Then they fold it back upon itself, which returns it to its thicker form. Here first is Deleuze showing the transformative motions with his hands.

bakers transformation animation
(Animation above is my own, made with OpenOffice Draw and Unfreeze)

Likewise, in the Baker’s Transformation, a square is stretched and then folded back upon itself. This animation shows the geometrical rendition of the transformation.

bakers transformation deleuze intensity depth animation
(Animation above is my own, made with OpenOffice Draw and Unfreeze)

What Deleuze observes is how distant points will come together after some number of transformations.

Deleuze uses this example not only to illustrate neuro-biological activity during thinking, but also how he was able to connect ideas between disciplines that he had no training or background in. These illustrations might remind us of how friends communicate without knowing explicitly each other’s meanings. On the basis of charming signs that Deleuze detects in various disciplines, he is able to cross these disparate fields in order to understand ideas that connect them, even without him having the expertise normally needed for uncovering these concepts. He offers two examples.

Michelson Morely Experiment Animation for Bergson's Duration and Simultaneity
(Animation above is my own, made with OpenOffice Draw and Unfreeze)

Delaunay image credits, in order
(Thanks spenceralley)
(Thanks leninimports)
(Thanks keepingupwithmyjoneses)
(Thanks joearevaloadam)
(Thanks 1artclub)

In one, he comes to understand an aspect of relativity theory through painting. He wanted to conceptualize regarding the Michelson experiment the way that a light beam expresses a form that is independent of the geometrical structure of the channel that the light beam moves through. In this moving diagram above, we observe the independent diagonal path that the vertical beam traverses, were it seen from an immobile point of reference.

Deleuze arrived at this concept not by working through the mathematics, but instead when he conjoined this scientific expression of the concept with the artistic one of Delaunay, who paints not the geometrical forms that the light shines on, but rather, he paints light itself as independently expressing forms in its own way. His other example is the way he came to understand Riemann space. He needed to grasp how each point is like a joint that varies the space in a non-predetermined way. He obtained this concept by juxtaposing the mathematical expression of this concept with these scenes in Bresson’s Pickpocket.

Deleuze further accounts how mathematicians tell him after reading the details of his mathematical writings that it fits together within what they know in their more specialized way, even though they and Deleuze would probably misunderstand each other in an intellectual conversation. He as well had such resonances with artists. In fact, Deleuze explains the importance also for philosophers to have a non-specialized reading of other philosophers, as if a philosopher for example would read Spinoza the way a merchant would.

For philosophical concepts to form, Deleuze explains, we need as well to have a non-philosophical reading of philosophical texts. So in this way, philosophers should alsoin a sense befriend other philosophers, as well as other non-philosophers, by dwelling below one other’s specialized terminology to instead produce concepts through non-representational communication.

[Julie Van der Wielen reads:]

Philosophy as friendship

Like Deleuze, Blanchot thinks friendship is a condition for thought. Philosophy should proceed in dialogue with the other, otherwise it strangles itself. Nothing is left then but thought thinking itself, scraping concepts until they’re empty. Blanchot himself oscillates between philosophy and literature, saying they’re both open to one another. He believes philosophy needs to be talked to from the outside, staying at her side we have to talk to her from outside, making a dialogue possible. As thought, philosophy needs to be in dialogue with a distant other in order to continue her unpredictable discourse.

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