Parisian Gilles Deleuze was one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century, and thanks to the work of Purdue’s Daniel Smith and his team, Deleuze is receiving attention in a decidedly 21st century way.
Known for his interest in philosophical history and metaphysics, Deleuze was a prolific writer and speaker who wrote numerous books, both solo and in concert with Félix Guattari. From 1971-87, he gave hundreds of lectures at the University of Paris, most of which were tape recorded.
The effort to make Deleuze’s work more accessible began in earnest in the late 1990s by the National Library of France and the University Paris 7. Smith joined the effort via a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to translate and transcribe the words of the noted philosopher for online consumption. In late 2020, Smith applied for another NEH grant and will learn in August if the application is successful.
Smith has been a professor of philosophy at Purdue since 2001 and specializes in contemporary European philosophy and the study of Deleuze. He serves as the project’s co-director and said that a condition in Deleuze’s will made it necessary to think beyond traditional publication paths.
“When Deleuze died, he left in his will a stipulation that said there would be no posthumous publications,” said Smith, whose initial financial backing for the project came from the College of Liberal Arts. “So, his estate has interpreted that to mean no print publications, but they’re allowing whatever and anything to go online.
“It’s interesting for us, because generally when philosophers die, they leave drafts of materials and lectures they’ve given that weren’t included in books. And eventually they get published as their writings – things they’ve written and never published. And they’re usually published in multi-book form. … We’ve been forced by the nature of Deleuze’s will to do everything online.”
Smith added he believes Deleuze did not want his remaining work published after his death because he’d said all he wanted to say in publications that were already available.
“I don’t think he left many documents,” Smith said. “His idea was more, ‘I’ve published the books and I’ve vetted them, and I’ve put my final thoughts in the books, so I don’t necessarily need people rummaging around my notes – my initial thoughts but not my final thoughts.’ I think that’s generally how writers tend to think about their notes.”
What does remain, however, are Deleuze’s lectures, of which there are many. A student named Hidenobu Suzuki attended and recorded nearly every seminar for a decade, yielding hundreds of hours of lectures. In 1999, the National Library of France got the ball rolling by digitizing Deleuze’s weekly talks (which generally lasted about three hours) and transcribing the tapes.
“The seminars were where he’d first present materials that wound up in his books,” Smith said. “It was kind of a workshop where he’d work on his things.”
Smith and his team of editors, transcriptionists, and translators have worked through most of Deleuze’s lectures, which was made more challenging in spots when trying to match what was said on the tapes with what was written in the transcriptions.
“What we are doing now is translating those transcriptions,” said Smith, who added that Deleuze used few notes when lecturing. “It’s a massive amount of material and we see it as a gift for posterity because he was a major philosopher. His books are all available, but most are not translated to English.”
The bulk of material left to translate and transcribe concerns Deleuze’s interest in motion pictures – the subject of two of his books. There are no less than 90 seminars on cinema, about half of which have already been processed by project co-director Charles Stavile, a retired language and literature professor from Wayne State University.
“Nobody was a film buff like Deleuze,” said Stavile. “He was a walking treasure trove of cinema trivia that was connected to a vast analytical apparatus. My admiration for him has grown in leaps in bounds just working on these transcriptions.”
“It’s quite fascinating, but the lectures are also difficult because Deleuze had this incredible knowledge of cinema,” Smith added. “He was a bit of a film buff and liked to go to movies. I think he cites over 700 movies in the course of his two books.
“It presents certain challenges to the translator because not only do you have to know French and know Deleuze’s work in general to translate correctly, but you also have to kind of know a bit of the history of the cinema because Deleuze knew it really well.”
Smith and Stavile had long been friends and colleagues even before Stavile, who previously had been producing text translations of Deleuze seminars for a French website, joined the project.
“I’m not in philosophy like Dan,” said Stavile, who retired in 2019. “I was in French studies, so I come at this much more from the French-language perspective, which makes it a very interesting challenge. I take it as a huge challenge to listen to this stuff. In correcting the transcriptions, I’m also trying to make sure that grammatically what’s being said sort of conforms to French syntax and French grammar.”
There is still plenty of work to be done to make this major component of Deleuze’s work available and accessible, but Smith feels the website will be a prominent clearinghouse to disseminate what the philosopher believed.
“It’s such a huge amount of material, I think the word count at the moment is 2 million. And if it were published it would be 30 or 40 volumes. It’s a three-hour seminar every week for 20 years. We’re trying to make it more user-friendly and accessible.”
For more information, visit www.deleuze.cla.purdue.edu