Andrea Long Chu, a biological male, explained in a 2018 op-ed for the New York Times why he desired radical surgery that would equip him with ersatz female genitalia. Chu was on estrogen and had already been castrated. He wrote:
Next Thursday, I will get a vagina. The procedure will last around six hours, and I will be in recovery for at least three months. Until the day I die, my body will regard the vagina as a wound; as a result, it will require regular, painful attention to maintain. This is what I want, but there is no guarantee it will make me happier. In fact, I don’t expect it to. That shouldn’t disqualify me from getting it.
Chu goes on to detail the ways in which he has suffered during his hormonal and surgical transition. He feels “demonstrably worse” since beginning estrogen. He is often suicidal. His gender dysphoria has “ballooned.” The reason he soldiers on lies in that avowal: “This is what I want.”
Why is Chu so passive before his desire? Why does he want so badly something that he expects won’t make him happy? To gain more insight into the strange reality of contemporary desire, we may turn to an unexpected aid: the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925–95), an astute theoretician of the current scene.
Deleuze taught his idiosyncratic philosophy for decades at the experimental University of Paris VIII at Vincennes-Saint-Denis, generating both adulation and rage. His students described him as “spellbinding” and said they were “completely fascinated” by him. But Deleuze is easy to dismiss, along with his frequent co-author, the radical psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, as a fraud.
Deleuze elicited opposition across the political spectrum. For a while, the Maoists left in France were his vigorous adversaries; they took issue with his valorization of “rhizomatic” desire and thinking. Deleuze argued that desire and thinking should spread haphazardly, as do rhizomes such as grass or root vegetables. His colleague at Vincennes, Alain Badiou, released an anonymous attack on this embrace of an anarchy of desires, titled “The Fascism of the Potato.” Devoted to the orderly process of Marxist dialectics, Badiou led disruptive incursions into Deleuze’s seminars, the duties of revolution (then as now) overriding collegial courtesies.
Deleuze’s publication of such essays as “Homage to Psychedelia” reinforced the impression of some observers that he was a charlatan. Few serious readers can sustain the following passage, from What is Philosophy?, cowritten with Guattari: “The Other Person is enough to make any length a possible depth in space, and vice versa, so that if this concept did not function in the perceptual field, transitions and inversions would become incomprehensible.” Many other such passages could be quoted.
Let us then take it as proven that Deleuze was often a lousy writer (though his criticisms of Freud and Lacan can be brilliantly funny). And we may grant that many of his ideas are half-baked at best, requiring far more rigorous development than he was willing or able to give them. For all that, he excelled as an inadvertent phenomenologist of the fallen world. If one wishes to understand Andrea Long Chu, Deleuze’s philosophy is invaluable. His congruence with the current Zeitgeist is one reason Deleuze’s philosophy has been ascendant in the last few decades, as his “rhizomatic” materialism has been applied to everything from the body to the Internet.
Deleuze’s biography indicates that dismissing him as a fraud is too pat. Among his colleagues, his abilities generated profound respect. Jean-François Lyotard said on his deathbed that his generation had only two philosophical geniuses, Jacques Derrida and Deleuze. “Each of them,” he declared, “had understood the whole of the history of philosophy by age nineteen.” This promise was seen early on, and not just by Lyotard.
When Deleuze was sixteen, he began to study philosophy under the medievalist Maurice de Gandillac, a student of Étienne Gilson. As a high school senior in the 1940s, he mingled in the philosophical salons of Marie-Magdeleine Davy, a specialist in twelfth-century thought, and met phenomenologists, Hegelians, and existentialists, as well as Resistance fighters and political operatives. Biographer François Dosse reports that “young Deleuze immediately drew attention. . . . He was at ease discussing Nietzsche with Pierre Klossowski; observers whispered, ‘He’ll be a new Sartre.’” Deleuze continued to study with de Gandillac at the Sorbonne, as well as with Jean Hyppolite and Georges Canguilhem.
Despite the presence of serious Catholic intellectuals in these circles, Deleuze seems never to have been tempted by faith. Spinoza, “the prince of philosophers,” served as his guiding light: “He may be the only philosopher never to have compromised with transcendence and to have hunted it down everywhere.” From Spinoza, Deleuze learned a philosophy of “immanence,” which refuses to find consolation in the beyond, and instead seeks salvation in nature. “Thus Spinoza is the Christ of philosophers.”
Despite his commitment to secular immanence, Deleuze was not a militant atheist. The exertions of today’s New Atheists would probably strike him as counterproductive, since their constant negations merely reinforce God as the Other. Deleuze dealt with God the way he dealt with Hegel: by refusing to engage. Rather than risk dialectical combat, he performed philosophical jiujitsu and trusted that God and Hegel would topple of their own accord. As one student who became a worker-priest said of him, “He wasn’t anticlerical but rather aclerical.”
This lack of hostility meant that Deleuze was more open-minded about the Judeo-Christian elements of the philosophical tradition than many of his contemporaries. At a time when scholastic metaphysics was being deconstructed because it supposedly led to “forgetfulness of Being,” Deleuze remained interested in ontology. He rehabilitated minor historical figures by rereading them according to his own “immanent” lights. He treated Duns Scotus seriously (and Gilson’s explication of Scotus likewise). Yet in revamping Scotus’s “univocity of being,” Deleuze rereads it in a typically idiosyncratic way. Univocity of being becomes the “repetition of difference,” a formulation that sounds more like the bastard child of Nietzsche and Bergson than anything a fourteenth-century Franciscan would recognize.
Indeed, Deleuze’s “production of concepts”—as he understood the work of philosophy—more often resembles the artifice of a Dr. Frankenstein than the midwifery of a Socrates. Reflecting on his thorough education in the classics, he said, “I belong to a generation, one of the last generations, that was more or less bludgeoned with the history of philosophy.” He “coped” with his bludgeoning by adopting a viewpoint that would mark his entire career: “to see the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or (it comes to the same thing) immaculate conception. I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet at the same time monstrous.”
Such genial blasphemy is typical of Deleuze, and not only in relation to Christianity. One Bergson specialist described Deleuze’s reading of Bergson as a “betrayal” of the original texts, but added that it nevertheless “was fantastic, something we all need. I adopted [Deleuze’s] ‘bastard’ [interpretation], fed and housed him, and sent him to school, that’s what I tried to do.”
At the time Deleuze began reading Bergson seriously, the early-twentieth-century French philosopher had been eclipsed in favor of more fashionable existentialism. Deleuze rehabilitated many thinkers, including Nietzsche. Like Spinoza, Nietzsche gave Deleuze an immanent frame into which ethics could be reworked: No longer a matter of morality, of good or evil, ethics became what is good or bad in the service of human life. The affirmation of life (reinterpreted as the affirmation of desire) elevated Nietzsche in Deleuze’s eyes above rival philosophers.
In 1964, Deleuze organized a major conference on Nietzsche, at which Foucault delivered his important essay, “Nietzsche, Freud, Marx.” Foucault and Deleuze would maintain a cordial but often politely antagonistic relationship. In his 1964 talk, Foucault names one thing he shares with Deleuze: those three influences. As Paul Ricœur argued, Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx are “masters of suspicion,” because each calls into question the reality of the conscious subject of Descartes, for whom thinking is the foundation of being. Nietzsche subjects the supposedly free subject to a genealogy that unveils the will to power as the identity-defining force. In Freud, unconscious desire displaces consciousness. And Marx unmasks the human individual as the bourgeois creation of capitalism, a creature of socioeconomic conditions rather than their creator.
The importance of Freud seems at odds with Deleuze and Guattari’s attacks on Freud’s Oedipus complex (as in Anti-Oedipus). Those attacks are directed at the “oedipalization,” and resulting idolization, of the family, which thanks to Freud became the “holy trinity” of “daddy-mommy-me,” as Deleuze and Guattari contemptuously put it. Deleuze and Guattari are “anti-Oedipus”: They believe that desire must be allowed to spread like a rhizome, to flow in unexpected “lines of flight” from one singular event to another. Containing desire within the Oedipal triangle, as Freud did, was an act of repression. Yet a Deleuze without Freud is inconceivable, because Freud insisted upon the omnipresence of desire. (Ironically, and unlike his colleague Guattari, Deleuze was apparently faithful to his wife and enjoyed a happy, bourgeois family life.)
To these two masters of suspicion, Marx adds the insight that desires are produced socially. It is this use of Marx as a theorist in the genealogy of desire that drew the ire of Alain Badiou when he rebuked Deleuze for promoting a fascism of desire. In terms reminiscent of Lenin’s concern about sexual libertinism among Communists, Badiou feared that Deleuze and his fellow “eroticists” were rerouting revolutionary fervor into bourgeois, individualistic sexual channels. For the Maoist, the eroticists made desire equiprimordial with socioeconomic structures, rather than seeing it as a superstructure dependent (along with everything else) on the economic base.
Badiou wasn’t wrong about what Deleuze and Guattari were up to. As they wrote in Anti-Oedipus, “Social production is purely and simply desiring-production itself under determinate conditions. . . . There is only desire and the social, and nothing else” (italics in the original). Augusto Del Noce was already arguing by the 1970s that the melding of desire with social production, as promoted by Deleuze and Guattari, and not Badiou’s purist communism, was the natural end point of Marxist materialism. Class revolution became the consumer-oriented sexual revolution.
But there is more going on in the reduction of everything to desire and the social. For Deleuze and Guattari, the productive power of desire functions as a machine. “Desiring production is production of production, just as every machine is a machine connected to another machine.” The whole world consists of machines: “Everything is a machine. Celestial machines, the stars or rainbows in the sky, alpine machines . . . nature as a process of production.” In Deleuze’s favorite example, the wasp and the orchid, the wasp-machine connects its flow to the orchid-machine to form a new machine comprising both of them.
In this scenario, desire becomes the autonomous agent, replacing the personal subject. The scenario is Freud on steroids. And with this point, we return to the present reality of Andrea Long Chu. “Desire causes the current to flow, itself flows in turn, and breaks the flows.” The self is a by-product, “produced as a residuum alongside the machine, as an appendix, or as a spare part adjacent to the machine.” A person might think he is an independent self, but that is a bourgeois illusion. “All identities are only simulated, produced as an optical ‘effect.’”
With this displacement of the subject, the inexorable mechanics of desire take center stage. The quasi-autonomous motor of desire forms things now in this way, now in that, legislating upon plastic matter. The body becomes a kind of prime matter, “a surface for the recording of the entire process of production of desire.” With this sentence, Deleuze explains the tattoo phenomenon. If the body is a surface on which desire writes, then desire is free to form it as it wishes. These days, this formation of the body by desire does not stop at sex. In “body modification,” people may have horns implanted in their foreheads, and worse—because the body has no innate intelligibility before desire begins to inscribe it with its blind purposes.
Thus, instead of a rational engagement with an intelligible—that is, already formed—material world, there arises the technological imposition of form upon the passive surface of the body. “The question posed by desire is not ‘What does it mean?’ but rather ‘How does it work?’” Deleuze insists. “Desire makes its entry with the general collapse of the question ‘What does it mean?’”
Autonomous desire, the evacuation of meaning, the technological inscription of form: All are exemplified by Andrea Long Chu’s vaginoplasty.
Form-imposition will always be a messy business. Deleuze’s description of archaic desiring-machines echoes Nietzsche’s account of the creation of memory through cruelty, outlined in the second essay of his Genealogy of Morals. Deleuze observes, “The primitive territorial machine codes flows, invests organs, and marks bodies . . . [through] tattooing, excising, incising, carving, scarifying, mutilating, encircling, and initiating.” The cruelty of form-imposition is perhaps what led Nietzsche to recognize a savagery in Kant, for whom the legislating mind imposes itself on the raw material of life. “Even in good old Kant,” Nietzsche exclaims. “The categorical imperative smells of cruelty.”
The transgendered person surrenders to this cruelty because his flesh is the site upon which his desires must form and reform themselves, over and over, forever. As Chu puts it, “It feels like getting on an airplane to fly home, only to realize mid-flight that this is it: You’re going to spend the rest of your life on an airplane.” His body’s job is pure submission, while his restless desire wields the knife. It is no accident that the transgender social imagination is riddled with sadomasochistic tropes.
Viewed in this way, Deleuze’s machinism is a kind of mercy. By technologizing both sides of the process—the desire as well as the instrumentality wielded by desire—he dehumanizes it all, to be sure, but he also anaesthetizes us. The submission of the flesh can be endured a little better, because it has become the engraving of the flows of desire by a machine upon a machine. There are only flows, the beginning of flows, and the cutting-off of flows. One machine acts on another machine. As is often the case with nihilism, the meaninglessness is a consolation.
These attempts to legislate form upon matter are nicely captured by the term “technocracy.” Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ defines technocracy as “a technique of possession, mastery and transformation. It is as if the subject were to find itself in the presence of something formless, completely open to manipulation.” Technocracy is a technique of the imposition of form upon what it presumes is formless matter.
Pope Benedict XVI lamented the technocratic mindset that is essential to maintaining the culture of death. He recognized that technology can “become an ideological power,” able to blind the intellect to truth and obliterate wonder. “Were that to happen, we would all . . . make decisions about our life situations from within a technocratic cultural perspective to which we would belong structurally, without ever being able to discover a meaning that is not of our own making.”
Much as agnosticism’s denial of the possibility of theology is itself a theology, technocracy’s denial of ontology creates an ontology. Technocracy’s refusal to acknowledge the form intrinsic in the thing creates the need for the technological imposition of form. The ontology of technocracy does not eliminate form but relocates it out of the thing and into the machine. Thus, technocracy replaces “a meaning that is not of our making” with “gods of one’s own”—or idols, according to Ratzinger’s definition.
For we cannot live without form, without intelligibility. Kant realized, to his annoyance, that our reason would never stop pressing toward the noumenal truth of reality behind appearances. How can we address the impossible demand to make the world intelligible by our own resources? How can we manufacture form? We need a technology. Deleuze’s philosophy, which grasps this need, is a poor ontology but an outstanding phenomenology of the idolatrous drive of postlapsarian desire detached from its transcendent end.
As Chesterton saw, the man who does not believe in God loses common sense. When the old gods were demythologized, and old-fashioned superstition fell away, technological superstition took its place (a process Ratzinger describes in Introduction to Christianity). We still have infinite, fallen desires that we must manage, and upon which we must impose form. In the technological age, lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16) do not disappear just because we no longer make offerings to graven idols. Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche arose to instruct us how to replace the deities of eros, comfort, and power with the resources found in ourselves—or at least in the technologies of the self (psychoanalysis, revolution, and genealogy) they proposed for our use. These technologies become the new idols.
On this reading, our technologies are just the latest iteration of our postlapsarian attempt to manage desire. Techne is not intrinsically evil, any more than desire is: Both are good and necessary. But when desire becomes perverted, then the good things of the world, such as human making, are coopted by idolatrous projects.
We will idolize technology so long as we expect it to do divine things for us, such as satisfy our infinite desires. This is why we are so fickle in our adoration, why we discard last year’s coveted model for the next. It is no accident that the Old Testament connects idolatry with adultery: Both are marked by faithlessness, because both goddess and mistress are means to self-referential ends, not ends in themselves. When another idol seems to provide the end more readily, the worshiper moves on. And there is no end to moving on.
So we are weary. Restlessness is baked into idolatry, because finite “gods of one’s own” cannot satisfy the infinite desires implanted in us. Not only the transgender person but each of us is always on the plane, mid-flight in our desire. We want to get off somehow, to arrive at our destination, a definitive idol.
The attempt to create form ex nihilo breaks us, because we are not divine creators but human ones. Enlightenment confidence gives way to anxiety, and Prometheus finds no relief in the power of fire. Instead, self-transcendence in manipulating matter turns in upon itself. Andrea Long Chu’s body is fighting the wound his desire inflicted.
Technocracy cannot be defeated by more technocracy. That is the Animal Farm solution: Dethrone one oppressor by backing a stronger oppressor. There are only two plausible ways to resist the machines of desire: resignation, whether Stoic or suicidal, or the pursuit of a transcendent end.
In attempting to reconcile us to the perpetual motor of our desire, Deleuze proffers the first strategy. He was influenced by Stoicism, and he died at age seventy by throwing himself out his apartment window. Likewise, in Andrea Long Chu’s writings, one can perceive a masochism, a suicidal longing to disappear under the imperious dictates of another’s desire.
The second strategy is given by revelation, which breaks through our defeated self-enclosure by proposing an infinitely desirable God who answers our infinite longings. The restless motor of our postlapsarian desire is the sin-distorted image of the eternally generative God, whose love is his very being. Divine appetite is the origin, template, and goal of human appetite.
Deleuze is therefore right to see desire as essential to human reality, though he misjudges desire’s purpose. Our loves are both greater and smaller than Deleuze thought. They are greater than he imagined, because they are ultimately directed not horizontally but vertically. As Thomas Aquinas argued, the desire proper to man is “altogether infinite,” because reason itself is ordered to the infinite. In Deleuze, the infinity of desire can only be a restless insatiability, the endlessness of eternal return, which he embraces with Nietzschean determination. But if, instead, our desire has a transcendent orientation, then its infinity aligns with the infinity of its divine end.
Andrea Long Chu is wrong; we are meant, mercifully, to “fly home.” Saints experience this home as desire and its complete satisfaction. This is why genuine Christian spirituality attempts not to stamp out desire but to integrate it. Not even in heaven will human desire be destroyed. It was created to be fulfilled in a supernatural love of God, just as all of human nature is not destroyed but fulfilled by grace.
The vertical horizon of our longing underscores that our desires are also smaller than Deleuze believed. Instead of the Promethean project of creation ex nihilo, we are called to accept our status as creatures. This demands reorienting our loves toward the divine, and away from “gods of one’s own.” This reorientation does not—cannot—require that we reject all creaturely goods. As Thomas puts it, “of all things there is one goodness, and yet many goodnesses.” All good things deserve our love, but in the proper manner, ordered to the One Good.
This disciplined relativization is glimpsed by Nietzsche, Deleuze, and Chu. Each in his own way submits lesser urges to the one thing of importance—life, production, or another’s desire—that orders all the rest. But all are caught on a “plane of immanence,” as Deleuze put it, viewing the transcendent as an enemy and trusting only “gods of one’s own.” Their manufactured idols subject their creators to a yoke that is neither easy nor light.
Their tragedies are guideposts for us. We can survive the technocracy only through the purification of our appetites, the ordering of them toward the desirable and transcendent triune God. Pope Benedict XVI called this process a “pedagogy of desire.” It is a perennial human task. The omnipresence of the technocracy makes the need for this pedagogy all the more acute.
The blessing of such a pedagogy is that we need no longer construct the world from scratch. Rather than impose form upon a meaningless world, we must receive, understand, and honor the world as it is. No finite good thing is God. The dethroning of Prometheus relieves the technocracy’s exhausted desiring-machines of their impossible burdens. It may, indeed, be received by them as good news.
Angela Franks is professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston.