Philosophy invites and repels biography in equal measure. On the one hand, it is identified with its most famous names in a way that would seem anachronistic in other disciplines; on the other, the lives of philosophers most often seem beside the point when it comes to understanding the individuality of their thought. If social histories of philosophy tend towards over-generalizing abstractions, personalizing ones are in danger of failing to illuminate the work at all. Hence the somewhat perverse character of the fascination with the lives of philosophers: the banality of the everyday acquires an added poignancy when the narrated life so consistently disappoints the search for the secret of the thought. This applies as much to ‘engaged’ philosophers (Heidegger, for example—a subject of intense biographical scrutiny, for obvious political reasons) as it does to less engaged ones (Kant, whose life’s charm resides, famously, in its metronomic uneventfulness). It is hard, though, to dispel the intuition that there is some important connection between the life and the thought. footnote1
Nonetheless, attempts to use biography reflexively, in a philosophical rather than a fictional manner, are hard to find. Apart from Wilhelm Dilthey’s turn-of-the-century experiments in philosophical biography, seeking out the ‘spiritual core’ of a life—The Life of Schleiermacher, The Story of the Young Hegel—which shaped Heidegger’s early ‘hermeneutics of facticity’, Sartre’s mid-twentieth-century tussles with existential biography (Baudelaire, Genet, Flaubert) are more or less all we have. Of late, the thirst for philosophical biography has had to make do with the cultural history of ideas: a life reduced to a chronological succession of events, suitably contextualized, interspersed with summaries of texts and quotations from correspondence and interviews. The contextualization is necessarily collective, of course, and it is there that the fabric of the story is woven. Philosophers who were active on broader intellectual, cultural and political scenes obviously make better conventional biographical subjects than the recluses that popular imagination prefers them to be.
The better-known French philosophers since the 1960s fit the bill well. And in the wake of Yann Moulier-Boutang’s life of Althusser (published in the same year, 1992, as his subject’s tortured and idiosyncratic autobiography), several successful instances of the genre appeared: notably, Elisabeth Roudinesco’s Jacques Lacan: An Outline of a Life and a History of a System of Thought (1993; translation 1997) and the two Foucault biographies by James Miller and David Macey (The Passion of MichelFoucault and The Lives of Michel Foucault, respectively, both also 1993). Each displays a level of theoretical sophistication in the presentation of philosophical ideas one would be unlikely to find in the biography of an Anglophone thinker. Recently, the more collective standpoints of intellectual context and reception have come to the fore, in Roudinesco’s Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida (2005; translation 2008) and François Cusset’s French Theory (the English expression is the title of the French edition): How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (2003; translation 2008).
François Dosse—author of the new ‘crossed’ biography of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and his sometime co-author, the psychiatrist and activist Félix Guattari—was a pioneer in this field with his two-volume The History of Structuralism (1991–92; translation 1997).Dosse wrote about structuralism some time after its decline. (In the French edition, the second volume, ‘1967– the present’, is subtitled Le chant du cygne, the swansong—punning on the first volume’s Le champ du signe, the field of the sign, as if the fall was predestined.) And he wrote about it with a knowing retrospection, facility and eye to the market that understandably irritated some of those involved in the project. (In a 1995 paper, Étienne Balibar dubbed the book, ‘truth be told, extremely mediocre’.)Nonetheless, its combination of journalistic method (interview), narrative (racy) and prose (limpid) was highly effective as a means for the wider transmission of sometimes opaque debates—the ‘hyper-formalism’ of the journal Cahiers pour l’analyse, in particular. In taking on Deleuze and Guattari, however, at what is probably the peak of their influence internationally, Dosse is entering a different arena. One British academic publisher (Edinburgh University Press) alone lists 33 books with ‘Deleuze’ in the title in its Philosophy catalogue for 2011.
Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives proceeds unencumbered by any problems of reflexivity posed by writing the overlapping life-stories of two thinkers whose work is so closely associated with the post-structuralist dissolution of the concept of the ‘subject’, and who came increasingly to focus on the concepts of ‘life’ and ‘subjectivation’ (the process of production of a subject), respectively. This was no doubt a commercial decision, but it is no less unsatisfactory for that. Dosse is not philosophically unknowing—as the high level of the précis of Deleuze’s major works demonstrates. The decision is, however, indicative of the industrial manner in which he presents the results of some impressively bulging filing systems, containing a huge amount of interview material, a significant amount of it borrowed. (The 49 interviews conducted by the documentary-maker Virginie Linhart for her aborted biography of Guattari contain the core of what is new in the book.) Material is ‘processed’ in a manner more impressive for its work ethic than its literary effect; although this is itself a literary effect of sorts: the simple reproduction of a genre, suspended between journalism and history. This operation has not been improved by an uneven, occasionally comically awkward translation into English, and a chaotically incompetent job of copy-editing. At what should surely be a narrative climax in the text—the death of Deleuze—we are informed in a truly Pythonesque manner that ‘he had just defenestrated himself’; where the French simply reads ‘il vient de se jeter par la fenêtre’. In four of the chapters (2, 6, 7, 13), the endnote references lose their moorings in the main text. Nonetheless, there is sufficient material here, of a sufficiently interesting kind, sufficiently competently processed, to make the book a significant point of reference. It mainly concerns Guattari. If Intersecting Lives has an effect upon the field, it is likely to be in its contribution to the emergent, second stage in the reception of Deleuze-and-Guattari: Guattari studies, or what the philosopher Éric Alliez has called ‘the Guattari–Deleuze effect’.