Deleuze on Sexuality: ‘a badly founded abstraction’?

Last year I was a bit restless again about what was the real motif that would explain the irreparable distance emerged between Foucault and Deleuze. This was mostly because of a 1981 interview I read [here] where Deleuze’s response seemed to be harsh towards the question of sexuality. I wanted to get the gist of why Deleuze’s answer sounded so unwarm, suspecting that it might have to do precisely with Foucault, who by those years still had the aim to complete his History of Sexuality. Was sexuality the conceptual reason that would explain the distance emerged between Foucault and Deleuze? For a few months, I managed silently this idea as something that might be possible, but it came the occasion to comment it on a post published at Foucault News, a blog we know is administered by Clare O’Farrell. As I have the habit to publish [here] every comment I share in the blogosphere, on that occasion WordPress pinged up a pair of malformed trackbacks to Clare’s blog, so I made another comment there to apologize about it and to ask her if she could correct and delete them. Some few minutes later I received an email of her thanking me for my comments and telling me that she already deleted the malformed trackbacks. Though it was just a brief and technical comment, it was nice to see that she also wanted to add something regard to my restlessness expressed on the question:

“BTW On the question of Deleuze’s and Foucault’s friendship – you might find more clues in the biographies – in particular Didier Eribon’s book on Foucault. The split was over their differing views on terrorism rather than anything conceptual.”

As I don’t quite agree with Clare about that last statement, I considered it was a good chance to extend my concern, so I replied to her as follows:

“I am aware about the public reasons that explain the split happened between Foucault and Deleuze, though I think the problem was also conceptual in many discrete respects. We can see this mostly if we take the differences that were emerging between them retrospectively and more from the deleuzian point of view. While it is said that the case was regarded to their different positions with respect to terrorism, there were also differences regards to the case of Foucault being detained in Germany, as far as i remember, though I really don’t swallow that they got distant just because of that. Their differences became truly hostile despite they admired and loved each other so much. We can see this clearly if we account Foucault’s interview with Watanabe, where he seems to be pretty offended and sad about what friendship turned out to be: of course he never called explicitly any name, but it is not hard to link this with what happened with Deleuze. In the same tone, while Deleuze was even more discrete, he also declared something pretty harsh, though indirectly, to Foucault’s decision to continue with his project of a History of sexuality. On a 1981 interview,  Arnaud Villani asked Deleuze:

“Thought is ‘spermatic’ in your work. Is there a clear relation, in this sense, with sexuality?”

and Deleuze answered:

“That was the case up until Logic of Sense, where there was still a specifiable relation between sexuality and metaphysics. Afterwards sexuality seemed to me rather to be a badly founded abstraction.”

It should be clear that in another time, Deleuze would never dare to say such a thing having in mind his friend’s tendency. Deleuze was displeased with Foucault, maybe because Foucault would not follow his suggested conceptualizations… So, I guess there is a way to read all this between lines and draw some conclusions. The very point is that Deleuze obsession with conceptualization was too dense, even for Foucault: if we read his book on Foucault, for instance, we can deduce how he was very clear about Foucault’s work in terms of its implied conceptualization, and given his obsession, even clearer than Foucault himself. Of course, no one likes that someone else would have a better and clearer idea about your own work, and Foucault was not the exception. We can also think that the differences they had also were differences on how they experimented philosophy, that is for sure.”

11 thoughts on “Deleuze on Sexuality: ‘a badly founded abstraction’?

  1. Pingback: Between Deleuze & Foucault: a big Nietzschean mustache in the middle! | ~ S c h i z o s o p h y ~

  2. I’ve probably read more Foucault than Deleuze, and would not consider myself an expert in either case, but… There is a large rift in their works that I’ve noticed thus far, pertaining to corporeality, of course. The prior is rooted in it while the latter couldn’t care less (or so it seems). And it’s strange because… Foucault uses language as a scaffold of sorts, while Deleuze generates organic forms through use of language. I imagine it nearly thus: F’s words separate from the body-self while D’s incorporate limbs into the trembling plane of selflessness.

    Perhaps might maybe explain sexuality as concrete on one hand and abstract on the other… ?

  3. Pingback: Deleuze on Sexuality: ‘a badly founded abstraction’? | da morta voglio farmi caramellare

  4. Hi there

    I have just come across this blog. I like it very much! I am, however, very late to the party! The relationship between Foucault and Deleuze has obsessed me for some time. It is a project I am working on in my spare time, alongside my PhD.

    The split between them is very intriguing. In my view, it cannot be explained with reference to their public disagreements concerning terrorism. In this respect, the biogs on Foucault (which are very good in my opinion, especially the Eribon one) are only of limited value.

    There is no doubt that they both admired and respected each other – loved one another. It is all there in print for us to read. Deleuze’s interviews on Foucault in “Negotiations” for example. But the ‘real’ distance between Foucault and Deleuze is, I think, deeply philosophical. For all the links and similarities, they had two very different ontological starting points. Using D’s language, we might say they had two different ‘images of thought’. This difference can be expressed as two different types of wonder (people will get the Aristotle reference). Foucault wonders how something ‘new’ could be created at all, how thought could ever escape the limits of the present. By contrast, Deleuze wonders how thought could ever be controlled, how ‘becoming’ could ever be contained or slowed down. I think their philosophical disagreements come back to this ontological difference.

    One way of exploring this idea, I think, is to begin exploring their philosophical disagreements over key concepts, ‘resistance’ (Deleuze disliked Foucault’s insistence on it) and ‘desire’ (Foucault disliked Deleuze’s emphasis on it as the expense of ‘pleasure’). It could be argued that ‘resistance’ (Foucault) and ‘desire’ (Deleuze) capture the heart of their ontological perspectives and the difference I am insisting on, which emphasises the different ways the concept of ‘limits’ operates in their thinking.

    By the way, Paul Patton is working on this issue, as you will no doubt already know. I rate him highly.

    All the best


    • Sam, thanks a lot for your thoughts on this specific question, I truly think that the differences between these two thinkers were always moved by their respective nietzscheanism, which did enter into a public competition in their mean to reboost Nietzsche’s critical influence. This race was started by Foucault, but I think it was Deleuze who won it at the end of the day, (however, the race would never have started without Michel, a race that Gilles would never have the courage to start by his own). It was a big nietzschean mustache that what was between them, attracting and splitting their friendship at the same time :-)

    • Hey Naxos,

      Thanks for your reply. I like your post – the humour is great! That said, I disagree with your argument :) On a number of levels, I don’t think it stacks up. If you don’t mind, I’d like to raise some issues and put some questions to you, all in the spirit of D and F’s critical friendship.

      Is there a conflict in what you are saying? You argue that the difference between Deleuze and Foucault was philosophical (they were ‘divided by their respective Nietzscheanism’). But you also suggest that the difference was personal (they were competing in a ‘race to reboost Nietzsche’s critical reception’). Of course, it might be a mixture of personal and philosophical differences that explains the ending of their personal interaction (which is not the same thing as a ‘philosophical relationship’ which endured until Foucault’s death).

      Whatever might be the case, it seems to me very unlikely that differences over Nietzsche were the primary reason for any split. You suggest they had two different Nietzschean projects, which might help to explain their divergence. Where is the evidence to suggest this? There are, from what I have found, no public statements made by either on this matter. And based on their texts, their philosophical differences (like those emphasised in my last post) do not, from what I can see, come back to how they incorporated Nietzsche into their own thinking. If anything, Nietzsche was something that linked them together – both talk about how Nietzsche (and others, Bataille, Blanchot etc) helped to ‘liberate’ them from phenomenology, for example.

      Another question is this: in what ways were either of them Nietzschean in your opinion? I ask this question not to question N’s influence on them, but because it is unclear to me what you mean by ‘Nietzschean’. Foucault continued Nietzsche’s ‘genealogy of morals’. This is his Nietzscheanism in my view. Indeed, in his final interview (“The Return to Morality”), Foucault states that his thought is ‘simply Nietzschean’. So I disagree with the suggestion that he departed from Nietzsche. Deleuze’s relationship to Nietzsche is less straightforward, I think. He wrote a brilliant (if odd) book on Nietzsche, which makes it easy to see Nietzsche’s influence on him. The distinction between ‘active’ and ‘reactive’ forces in Nietzsche, for example, is vital to Deleuze’s ontology of becoming. But, I’d question if Deleuze were ever really a Nietzschean. It seems to me that Bergson and Spinoza were much more important to him. So I wonder if Nietzsche was a big enough deal for Deleuze to break with Foucault, someone he clearly loved and respected so much. Perhaps if I understand what you mean, I will change my mind ☺

      One small, final question. I would need to go back to the texts and interviews again, but I think I am right in saying that their personal interaction continued for several years after the initial engagement with Nietzsche? Their shared interview on theory and practice, for example, was, from memory, several years after the initial publication and reception of Deleuze’s book on Nietzsche.

      All the best,


    • Sam, I am terribly sorry but i just saw your reply! As you might have noticed I am somehow deterritorialized from my online interaction and blog-duties, due to some offline activities that are consuming all my time. I apologize also for not being able to respond to your questions right away, but I will as soon as I can ;-)

    • Sam, thanks again for your reply. I do have some points to make concerning to what you commented that i want to make clear.
      In first place, I referred about the differences and not about the difference between them, precisely in the mean to avoid the idea of a marked division that would separate them, and in the mean to take for granted that they shared a similar philosophical genealogical vein (nietzschean) -that what moved them to speak in their own name (Foucault being the first)- but with some differences in their respective paths. I did suggest a kind of individual and not personal race between them and not against each other in their way to reboost Nietzsche: I meant this race more with regards to their respective trajectories and work. Lets say that they recognized themselves in their own Nietzscheanism, a Nietzscheanism that they celebrated and wanted to give voice bringing in all the excess it implies. This excess that they put into play in their work but also in their way of life, is precisely what they seem to share philosophically through Nietzsche, say, a certain Dandysm. Therefore, I did not suggest neither that these differences referred to their Nietzscheanism were differences specifically over Nietzsche in textual terms.
      Both Foucault and Deleuze departured from Nietzsche, that is a fact. In the case of Foucault: his History of insanity is deeply inspired by ‘the sun of the Nietzchean experience’, as he clears says in his very first preface, and so the matter of insanity, of madness, which is related to the mentioned nietzschean excess, detours almost the whole of his philosophical project: the matter of absolute knowledge, the foucaultian affirmation, as the very concrete empirical experience of madness (a matter that Deleuze also was interested in, and that with Guattari is directly connected with his idea of the ‘schizo’).
      Concerning to your last question: of course that you are right to say that their personal interaction continued after the initial engagement with Nietzsche: before and after the interview you mentioned, as it is known, they were in contact and continue their interaction (but after Foucault’s famous deleuzian statement ‘the century as deleuzian’, with less frequency, intensity, and Dandysm). Besides, Foucault was a great admirer of schizoanalysis in its very first stage.
      However, if you follow all the posts of these same series, you will see that my concern about their split goes from the differences in their Nietzscheanism, passes through the issue of sexuality, and ends up with the differences between the foucaultian dispositif and the deleuzo-guattarian concept of agencenment. Maybe you will find them interesting to read as well. I also wrote something about the importance of Nietzsche in Deleuze philosophical career, here:

  5. I don’t think it goes deeper than Deleuze’s concern that Foucault was erring in siding with pleasure (at least from his perspective). I think he saw the richness of the potential for Foucault’s work there at the level of the individual and saw it going awry. The reason for Foucault’s lack of reply is another issue. When he suggested ‘oh maybe my pleasure and your desire are of the same nature’ (i.e. made it a linguistic point and not a deep conceptual rift) I think even then he realized of course they’re extremely different positions, but could not back up the claim when Deleuze responded with how they in fact differed in his eyes. Foucault doesn’t think at the pace of Deleuze, if you notice Foucault’s commentaries on his own work you see that sometimes he’s working on things and doesn’t rise above it to the point of being self-reflective in a fully conscious sense. The shift he takes in the second and third books of the History of Sexuality are his attempt to work through his own response to Deleuze (IMO). I think he wanted his direction to remain original but at the same time respond to the issue that Deleuze exposed in that pleasure is an affair of power (reterritorialization).

    • Thanks for your comment, Rodrigo. I do agree with you about what it is publicly known on the question. However, I am pretty sure that it goes deeper than that, somehow related to their respective nietzscheanism: my hunch is that this nietzscheanism was started by Foucault in the early years but Deleuze carried on with it in a way far more intense than Foucault could ever imagined.

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