As I think more about Deleuze and Guattari’s account of desire in Anti-Oedipus, I find myself wondering if it doesn’t risk becoming another apologetics for reigning organizations of power. On the one hand, no contemporary political thought can afford to ignore the manner in which desire is manufactured, regulated, and organized given the manner in which we live in a media saturated environment.
On the other hand, the implications of Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding of desire become disturbing when juxtaposed with the writings of the Stoic Epictetus. Those familiar with Epictetus’ Enchiridion will find it impossible to forget his opening paragraph. There Epictetus writes,
There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.
Now, the things within our power are by nature free, unrestricted, unhindered; but those beyond our power are weak, dependent, restricted, alien. Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent, and take what belongs to others for you own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you take for your own only that which is your own, and view what belongs to others just as it really is, then no one will ever compel you, no one will restrict you, you will find fault with no one, you will accuse no one, you will do nothing against your will; no one will hurt you, you will not have an enemy, nor will you suffer any harm.
Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself any inclination, however slight, towards the attainment of the others; but that you must entirely quit some of them, and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would have these, and possess power and wealth likewise, you may miss the latter in seeking the former; and you will certainly fail of that by which alone happiness and freedom are procured.
Seek at once, therefore, to be able to say to every unpleasing semblance, “You are but a semblance and by no means the real thing.” And then examine it by those rules which you have; and first and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are within our own power, or those which are not; and if it concerns anything beyond our power, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.
Do not Deleuze and Guattari, despite all their talk about the creative and productive nature of desire, share an uncanny resemblance to Epictetus? The liberal ideologue tells us that we must resign ourselves to all the ugliness of the world in advance because we exist in a world populated by scarce resources, such that we are necessarily plunged into competition and its attendant social hierarchies. However, wouldn’t it also be the case that Deleuze and Guattari, like Epictetus, tell us that if we suffer then this is because we have created the wrong desires and were we simply to modify our desires we would be capable of tolerating whatever circumstances we might find ourselves in? Like Deleuze and Guattari, Epictetus seems to suggest that desire is not something natural or inborn, but is a product of our creative freedom. Deleuze, of course, has a strong connection to the stoics through his relation to Spinoza and his development of a stoic ontology in The Logic of Sense. The risk here is that we find ourselves perilously close to claiming that true revolutions are not revolutions in how material conditions or social relations are organized, but rather are revolutions of desire that transform our relations to these conditions.
In this connection, The Shawshank Redemption would end up being a film about Deleuzian desire.
For what we are led to witness in Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption is that it is not, primarily, our material conditions that are intolerable, but rather our relationship to these conditions. The character of Brookes, for example, ends up committing suicide after he finally gets paroled not because conditions on the outside world are intrinsically miserable for him– we know such conditions aren’t intrinsic because Andy is able to find peace and happiness on the outside world –but rather because he is unable to restructure the nature of his desire so as to find peace of mind in the outside world.
Yet if this is the case, if it is our desire that defines the valence of the world rather than the world, then it would seem that the entire animus is once again placed on the agent. If you are miserable then it is because you have failed to create a suitable field of desire, not because the field is itself intrinsically miserable. In a paradoxical twist, the thought of the free man becomes the thought of the slave. As such, the social field is once again rendered immune to social critique. Perhaps this is the reason that it is of such vital importance that Deleuze and Guattari deconstruct the primacy of the self-enclosed social subject, instead showing that desire itself immediately invests the social field and issues from the social field, that desire is material and not simply a property of biological subjects, and that the subject itself emerges as a product of desire rather than the reverse.