A Thousand Queer Plateaus: Deleuze's 'Imperceptibility' as a Liberated Mapping of Desire

Kitty Millet

[1] Gilles Deleuze presents us with a conundrum: on the one hand, his work has been used routinely to advance queer politics, philosophies, and theories (Grosz, 1995; Edelman, 1995; Giffney, 2004); in fact, the premise of this special issue of Rhizomes suggests that Deleuzian theory enables, if not promotes, a new theory of "queerness." On the other hand, Deleuze historically rejected declaring himself "gay." He never "outed" himself and he was always known for not participating in "queer-identified" activities, i.e. he was never part of any identifiable gay community in France. In this context, queer and gay would be understood as interchangeable signifiers; gay would be the object representing the queer phenomenon. Thus one might question what Deleuze can contribute to discussions of queer theory since he neither involved himself in any debate over nor ostensibly analyzed queer identity. However, although there isn't any one text where Deleuze explicitly examines homosexuality, there are many places where Deleuze adopts "queerness" as a form of self-description.

[2] Consequently, Deleuze's adoption of "queerness" has had its critics, most notably Michel Cressole. The source for many of the suspicions regarding Deleuze's sexuality, as well as the applicability of Deleuzian theory to queer identities (Millet, 1999), Cressole's text, Deleuze, accuses Deleuze of taking "advantage of the experiments of others—homosexuals, drug addicts, alcoholics, masochists, [and] madmen" (112). With homosexuals topping the list of Deleuze's alleged victims, Cressole charges Deleuze with gaining benefit from "social transgression" because he exploits fringe groups within mainstream society. In this way, Cressole intimates that Deleuze's theory, like Deleuze himself, is socially parasitical; he preys on groups already engaged in risky, "self-destructive" behavior. However, Cressole doesn't criticize Deleuze in order to advocate for marginalized identities: Cressole attacks Deleuze because of Deleuze's perceived failure to mark himself visibly as either "the user" of social transgressors or one of society's transgressors himself.

[3] Deleuze answered Cressole's accusations with "I Have Nothing to Admit" in 1977. In this essay, Deleuze addresses his accuser by sidestepping Cressole's publicized attacks; he instead hones in on the real stakes of his refusal to declare himself publicly to be a homosexual, or at least to be sexually engaged with a man. Deleuze rejects such public pronouncements because of his philosophical orientation, an orientation that mandates not only the multiplicities of desire, but also their "connection and heterogeneity" (Deleuze, 1997: 7). Thus Deleuze sees pronouncements of gay preference as forms of "the most classical and well-reflected, oldest, and weariest kind of thought"(5) since they signal determinate judgments, attempts to legislate rather than liberate sexual desire. Therefore, the "queerness" to which Deleuze appeals in texts as divergent as A Thousand Plateaus to "I Have Nothing to Admit," has to be imperceptible. It is imperceptible so that it can motivate multiplicities of desire rather than provide an allegedly determinate and static mode of orientation. For Deleuze, it's a matter of movement. This is a movement always in the throes of becoming, but never arriving at a determinate point. As such, it shortcircuits a perceptibility that resolves itself with objects and subjects. As a result, the multiplicities are indiscernible and depersonalized" (Deleuze, 1977). They are imperceptible, incapable of determination.

[4] Deleuze complicates imperceptibility by associating it with his relationship to Felix Guattari since it is his relationship with Guattari that produced Anti-Oedipus. This important example goes to the heart of Cressole's accusations: if Deleuze is not a homosexual, he exploits them:

And then, there was my meeting with Felix Guattari, the way we got along and completed, depersonalized, singularized each other—in short how we loved. That resulted in Anti-Oedipus, which marked a new progression ...So they try to untangle what is undiscernible or to determine what belongs to each of us. But since everyone, like everyone else, is multiple to begin with, that makes for quite a few people (1977: 114).

Cressole has complained that if Deleuze is not a homosexual, then, he exploits the homosexual; however, Deleuze reframes Cressole's complaint to be akin to critics of Deleuze and Guattari's work, Deleuze and Guattari's relationship. Deleuze and Guattari's critics attempt to delineate perceivable boundaries in Anti-Oedipus so that "what belongs to Deleuze" and "what belongs to Guattari" can be visibly determined. Specifically, their critics look in terms of possession by recasting "how we loved" as a form of ownership, a relationship in which the boundaries separating Deleuze from Guattari are not only perceptible, but they are also statically visible. Likewise, this visibility carries with it a safe "untangling" of bodies. Everyone can see what and how Deleuze's body relates to Guattari's. They have only to identify each other's possessions. In this way, Deleuze implies that the critics of Anti-Oedipus and Cressole both conceive of desire and bodies as tangible property, possessible objects.

[5] However, Deleuze points out that the multiplicity of selves "makes for quite a few people," i.e. his critics cannot make multiplicity reducible to property. Since Deleuze and Guattari have become depersonalized, and "like everyone else ... multiple," they have produced a writing that extends itself in multiple directions. In other words, Deleuze suggests that while sexual identity might be known as property, sexual expression is multiplicity itself, a plural, and cannot be known in only one mode of Being. These multiplicities, believed by his critics to be erroneously the unitary signifiers of Deleuze and Guattari, have produced, the book, then, Anti-Oedipus, also a writing, and that writing is multiple too. As Deleuze and Guattari "complete each other," they produce multiplicities in the text and this is why Deleuze doesn't just say or declare himself to be a gay man.

[6] This intimate gesture, "in short how we loved," signifies Deleuze's response to Cressole; Deleuze will not furnish Cressole with a pronouncement of sexual identity, but rather with plural expressions. For Deleuze, the pronounced sexual identity signals the fallacy of a determinate judgment, an identity that is familiarly known as well as statically grounded in a representation of one mode of Being. Since the pronouncement claims its determinacy with the statement, "I am homosexual," the pronouncement signifies its status epistemologically, i.e. it is a classifiable, determinate judgment. It represents something that can be known.

[7] A recurring theme in his work, Deleuze's interest in determinate judgments begins with his work on Kant. In the book, Kant's Critical Philosophy (1984), Deleuze defines determinate judgments as those in which "the general is already given, known, and all that is required is to apply it, that is to determine the individual thing to which it applies ('apodictical employment of reason, determining judgment')"(53). In Kant, the determinate judgment is exclusively the purview of the faculty of understanding. The understanding recognizes the phenomenon as something already known; it applies, then, its concept, its determinate judgment, constituting the phenomenon as an object of its knowledge. The understanding classifies the object unproblematically within its appropriate category. In this way, objects become countable or measurable because they are visibly found in their proper places. With this in mind, the category homosexual would collect and reproduce, a series of static objects of knowledge, known precisely through the determinate judgments governing them. These objects would be the "individual objects" to which the category of homosexual would apply its concept or judgment.

[8] Thus Deleuze's reference to "the apodictical employment of reason" points to a disturbing implication suggested by Kant's language: determinate judgments are allegedly absolute (apodictic) and they derive ultimately from the understanding's actions as an instrument of reason. In other words, if the determinate judgment is apodictic in its application, it follows that the phenomenon itself is given or known; it cannot become, then, anything else. An effect of this phenomenon is a supposed intransigence; the object of knowledge never changes and it is always classifiable. The stakes of this type of judgment are bound up necessarily, then, with unarticulated values regarding ontology: objects of knowledge statically represent phenomena; they suggest one-to-one correspondences between phenomena, determinate judgments, and objects of knowledge.

[9] Kant's influence here should not be overlooked or underplayed because it has effected materially the valence Deleuze accords to Cressole's representation of "queerness" that presumes queer to be an interchangeable signifier for "gay" or "homosexual." While in a Kantian scenario, "queer" could signify a static gay identity, underwritten mimetically by an unchanging, static, homosexual desire, Deleuze declares that such a pronouncement is "classical," advocating the "weariest kind of thought." In other words, this kind of declaration is part and parcel of a traditional mode of thinking about sexual desire and its relation to identity. Ironically, the radical signifier, "queer," ends up yielding a normative, non-radical, signification, one that lends itself unproblematically to a sexual hegemony of categorization where gays might gain epistemological and even imaginative, aesthetic space in society by suggesting an unproblematic and mimetic relationship between sexual desire and sexual identity.

[10] In this way, Deleuze balks at a public declaration of gay identity because its mimetic ground enables the illusion of radicality, individuality, while the public declaration as a determinate judgment contains "queerness" within the parameters of a sexual hegemony and classification. One is not challenging the form of thought, but rather cosmetically altering its contents.

[11] Within in this conventional type of mimesis, thought can not only entertain a varied category of "homosexuality," but can also work to subsume any radical threat to its hegemony by determining "the queer's proper place." This has been a rather traditional method for western thought: we can embrace the diverse object by determining how it fits into the understanding's epistemology of knowledge. While western societies might today entertain, even embrace, sexual freedoms, by substituting a safe position, hedged by legal rights, for the former imprisonments, torture, and bashing, of years past, for Deleuze, the West still has not changed the ways they think of "queers" so to speak. They are merely controlling them, keeping them "locked up" within an epistemology of knowledge in which queer equals gay. Furthemore, "queers" have been complicit in their own containment.

[12] This easy conflation of queer for homosexual or gay suggests itself as a key to the underpinnings of "queering" Deleuze. In a later dialogue with Claire Parnet, Deleuze describes how mimesis or imitation tries to control becoming by positing "a phenomenon of imitation or assimilation" as a substitution for it:

To become is never to imitate, nor to 'do like', nor to conform to a model, whether it's of justice or of truth. There is no terminus from which you set out, none which you arrive at or which you ought to arrive at ... The question "What are you becoming?" is particularly stupid ... as someone becomes, what he is becoming changes as much as he does himself ... Becomings are not phenomena of imitation or assimilation. (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: 2)

In other words, Deleuze's exclusion of becoming from a traditional epistemology of knowledge—mimesis, has the effect of linking becoming with queer because, like queer, becoming remains a mode outside of classification. Furthermore, becoming implies then an unhinging of knowledge, its destabilization for becoming never completes itself in a predicate.

[13] Since the classification of gays within a paradigm of sexual preferences doesn't destabilize thought, sexual desire remains legislated rather than liberated. This critical contrast between legislation and liberation gets at the heart of the problem: with legislation, the faculties control experience by limiting desire to what can be legislatable, i.e. objects governed by determinate judgments. With liberation, all bets are off.

[14] In fact, Deleuze describes the liberation of the imagination through the Sublime in much the same way. "Confronted by its own limit," the imagination is "forced to strain to its utmost, experiencing a violence which stretches it to the extremity of its power" (1984: 50). The limit of the imagination's power is experienced, furthermore, as an immensity that constrains the imagination to extend this limit. However, the efforts "to extend this limit" fail, reducing "our imagination to impotence." A curious signifier, "impotence" suggests either a failed erection or a lack of creative power, yet Deleuze associates this impotence with Kantian sublimity. Deleuze goes on to tell us that when we try to attribute this failure, or impotence, to the immensity of something before the imagination, we overlook a critical component to the whole experience:

But in reality it is reason which forces us to unite the sensible world into a whole ... The Sublime thus confronts us with a direct subjective relationship between imagination and reason. But this relationship is primarily a dissension rather than an accord, a contradiction experienced between the demands of reason and the power of the imagination (1984: 50-51).

It is reasonable, then, for the imagination to experience a controlled liberation, a sublimity hedged by reason's ability to determine the role and power of the imagination. Deleuze implies that reason preserves its own power by allowing the imagination this controlled liberation in which the imagination's push against its own constraints ends ultimately with reason's subsumption of the experience as well as its subjection of the imagination to reason's hierarchy of the faculties. In other words, the radicality of sublimity, its ability to change the direction of thought, is ultimately checked by reason.

[15] Something that remains occluded in Kant becomes critical, however, in Deleuze's discussion. For Deleuze, liberation of the imagination could be construed as engendering "the object of a genesis, a properly transcendental genesis" (1984: 50-53). Deleuze signifies that the imagination could engender through the Sublime; [1] sublimity could generate something other than a reasonable end. In a hierarchy of the faculties, though, "the object of a genesis" becomes unreasonable: the imagination cannot engender under the reign of reason because the imagination's liberation hints at modes of becoming. For reason, the imagination must be capped so that transcendence is not an effect of becoming; transcendence remains firmly anchored to ontology, Being. To some degree, reason's authorized object of aesthetic experience must remain "recreative"; it cannot be "procreative."

[16] This tension between recreative and procreative characterizes Deleuze's notion of his theoretical labor as well (Deleuze, 1977). This characterization links Deleuze's theoretical project to his public refusal to identify himself as gay while still suggesting his "queerness" by drawing our attention to Deleuze's "philosophical children." In fact, Deleuze's desire to be "procreative" or rather to create "the object of a genesis" intimates that Deleuze understands queerness as sexually reversing the order of prescribed procreation:

But what really helped me come off at the time was, I believe, to view the history of philosophy as a screwing process or, what amounts to the same thing, an immaculate conception. I would imagine myself approaching the author from behind, and making him a child, who would indeed be his and would, nevertheless, be monstrous. That the child would be his was very important because the author had to say, in effect, everything I made him say. But that the child be monstrous was also a requisite because it was necessary to go through all kinds of decenterings, slidings, splittings, secret discharges which have given me much pleasure (1977: 117).

Deleuze's imagining, while it appears to resonate with Michel Foucault's and David Halperin's analyses of the Greeks' theory of power, actually suggests the violation of an "older, classical, thought" in which Deleuze impregnates his philosophical antecedents, making them simultaneously parent, child, and monster.

[17] In this imagining, Deleuze forces classical philosophy to give birth to Deleuze's desire, his child, yet the child is specifically the "screwed philosopher's" so that the philosopher is both parent and child too. Instead of a chronological history of philosophy, in which authors influence a future progeny, encouraging a trajectory of progress, Deleuze offers a way to refute the authorized coupling by drawing our attention to what Deleuze has done to his philosophers. He has "plunged into Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger" and by the same token, he has been taken by Fanny, whose "ideas always seized" him "from behind" (Deleuze and Parnet: 10). Deleuze calls this "taking" in fact, "becoming-philosophy."

[18] Here Deleuze's description pushes the reader to imagine how Deleuze's "becoming-philosophy" forces classical philosophy to generate "the object of a genesis," "an immaculate conception." Not an arbitrary choice of terms, Deleuze's "immaculate conception" alludes to the import of Deleuze's action for philosophy. His imagination does not recoil in impotency, but rather it has engendered a new Becoming whereby the "author" becomes a "child" who speaks the words of his father.

[19] These words become, then, multiple children. By Deleuze "approaching the author from behind," a symbolically transgressive form of procreation, Deleuze multiplies the roles of generator, generated, and generation so that his "object of a genesis" collapses the statically understood roles of father, child, author. In other words, Deleuze's "paternity" only becomes noticeable in the words Deleuze causes the "monstrous child" to speak. At that moment, the words themselves are the only traces of Deleuze: he is imperceptible. His words, texts, extend themselves, then, as what would appear to be a "monstrous becoming."

[20] Moreover, instead of just one child, Deleuze has been "screwing around a lot." Thus Deleuze's "imagining" or "screwing" reiterates the need for the imagination's liberation from "the weariest kind of thought" while at the same time, Deleuze advocates the pleasure of this imagined connection because the "objects of a genesis" enable Deleuze to go necessarily through " all kinds of decenterings, slidings, splittings, secret discharges" that have given him "much pleasure." The text now performs; it says the words that Deleuze "makes the child say." The implication here is a remarkable one, not least of which because it plays off of the well-known biblical narrative of creation, except that here, Deleuze's project generates creation. It procreates with a whole slew of symbolically-outlawed partners, temporally illegitimate monsters.

[21] Furthermore, by "approaching the author from behind," an anonymous and unanticipated action, Deleuze remains unacknowledged by the author who instead experiences his own transgressive transformation. The author is "splitting, decentering." In this transgressive act, Deleuze transforms the author himself into an illegitimate "object of a genesis," i.e. an object without classification. Doubly articulated, this illegitimacy suggests multiple connections. The author no longer shares a one-to-one, mimetic, correspondence between a phenomenal and an objective self; he has been transformed instead into multiple engenderings, becomings.

[22] Likewise, Deleuze himself has become multiple: he comes from behind, but is lost and somehow present in "the author's" transformation. Furthermore, he is now an author who similarly must be transformed by others "who come from behind." This multiplicity speaks to Deleuze's description of the indiscernibility between "what belongs to" Deleuze and "what belongs to" Guattari in Anti-Oedipus. Deleuze and Guattari have become; they are no longer perceptible as static entities. Deleuze's screwing has engendered multiple objects of a genesis that might or might not become Deleuze.

[23] The philosophical upshot of Deleuze's screwing is, then, the negation of perceptibility. Deleuze's actions are imperceptible because they come "from behind," are illegitimate, and transgress the previous self-same identity of the author; therefore, Deleuze's "queerness" has to be imperceptible. By associating "queerness" with imperceptibility, Deleuze engenders a "queerness of Becoming," a queerness that cannot be tethered to the phenomenal aspect of preference because it freely connects and disconnects as it so desires. Thus "queer desire" becomes for Deleuze linked to the movement of the rhizome, a movement described in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia:

Once a rhizome becomes arborified, it's all over, no desire stirs; for it is always by the rhizome that desire moves and produces. Whenever desire climbs a tree, internal repercussions trip it up and it falls to its death; the rhizome, on the other hand, acts on desire by external, productive outgrowths (Deleuze and Guattari: 14).

The rhizome's arborification, its root growing in only one direction into a static and classifiable object, signifies the end of desire. What is desire's end? It is the control of desire's movement by an insistence that desire tether itself to "the tree." Moreover, the tree to which desire is anchored proceeds in only one direction: "it climbs upward." With this metaphor, Deleuze indicates that desire needs multiple directions in order to move and produce: desire needs multiplicities that not only enable it to move in many directions simultaneously, but also to produce a wide variety of heterogeneous rhizomes. This "connection and heterogeneity" constitute the first two principles of the rhizome; conducted at the level of the rhizome, connection and heterogeneity are imperceptible until the birth of the next "object of a genesis."

[24] Imperceptibility motivates multiplicities of desire rather than determinate and static modes of being because imperceptibility prevents desire from climbing only one tree, from being associated with only one path, one imagined space. Imperceptibility keeps desire in a state of becoming so that mulitiplicities constantly emerge and dissipate. Imperceptibility does this precisely because it cannot be anchored or tethered mimetically to a phenomenon. In this way, desire moves beyond sexual identity and produces, connects, heterogeneously, to rhizomes. For Deleuze, such movement is akin to a new creation project, a new genesis or a new possibility for genesis. In fact, Deleuze's description of himself as a "pluralist," an "empiricist" who finds the "conditions under which something new is produced" alludes to this new possibility for genesis even when as Deleuze puts it, "it means undergoing a terrible crisis each time one sees rational unity or totality turning into their opposites, or the subject generating monstrosities" (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987; vii).

[25] But it all hinges on desire's jettisoning the entitlements of mimesis and becoming an imperceptible agent in which neither subject nor object emerges. Deleuze proposes a mimesis-less project because the loss of mimesis is critically important to understanding transformed, transgressive, and illegitimate "queerness." While conventional forms of gay identity lend themselves to a regime of mimesis, Deleuze intimates that this social binarism is inadequate not only for him, but also for us because it limits desire, forcing it to recreate a unified "sensible whole."

[26] In other words, Deleuze was all about proposing not only a new theory of gender, engendering, to go along with the genesis of the imagination, but also a new theory of creation. All those metaphors, biblically-derived, weighting the first Book as the "root-Book," are recuperated by Deleuze as effects of desire that have been harnessed "unnaturally" to mimesis. Mimesis is that "immensity," that limit the imagination must confront and that it pushes against. With Kant, Deleuze believed that the imagination's push against this limit would be eventually subsumed by reason, a kind of edenic divine law. However, Deleuze imagined that this subsumption did not have to be the only way for the imagination. Its push, its impotency, could in fact become the condition of another creation, "the author becomes the father becomes the child."

[27] Therefore, Deleuze's choice of the term "object of a genesis" is not an arbitrary one tied only to aesthetic experience. For Deleuze, the "object of a genesis" has to suggest the Garden of Eden, the narrative in which a hegemony of static subjects and objects is initially imprinted. This is a world of binarisms, anchored to a law that sanctions sex in only one mode and only between one authorized pair of male and female. Deleuze sees this narrative replayed, furthermore, even in his analysis of Kant's subjects and objects. Thus the only other figure in the Edenic narrative, the serpent in the tree, has historically been a cipher for desire legislated by the Law of the Garden; even transgression is containable in this narrative. But Deleuze's theory of queerness rethinks legislatable desire by pointing out how it is unnaturally tethered and growing in only one direction. In this way, desire becomes liberated and multiple.

[28] Consequently, Deleuze would not publicly identify himself as a gay or a straight man without undermining a key element of his theoretical labor. To do so would be akin to him not only denying desire's liberation, but it would also be tantamount to classifying himself within a sexual hegemony, an Edenic narrative that he saw as fundamentally grounded in legislation rather than liberation. These two effects prompted him to have "nothing to admit" and this brings us ultimately back to the implications of Cressole's accusations. For Cressole, "homosexuals" participate in society only as social transgressors. Listed with "drug addicts, alcoholics, masochists, and madmen," Cressole's homosexuals, his "queers" are self-destructive pariahs in society, in need of therapy. Rather than liberating any of these groups, Cressole would advocate legislation as a form of protection, perhaps society's protection of itself from these uncontrollable elements. By refusing to address Cressole's accusations directly, Deleuze rejects this legislative drive and aligns himself with the queer as criminal element in a much more powerful way than merely making a pronouncement of gay allegiance.


[1] While others have seen this possibility as well, most notably Lyotard, Deleuze is the only one to actually map where the threat of the Sublime might take the imagination in relation to desire.

Works Cited

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Millet, Kitty. "Gilles Deleuze." Encyclopedia of Gay Male Sexualities. Ed. George Haggerty. New York: Garland, 2000.