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Deleuze and the Joy of Being Who We Are


Joy, in the perspective of the great French thinker, gives us back the capacity of agency over our lives.

Between 1988 and 1989 Gilles Deleuze agreed to participate in a curious television experiment called L’Abécédaire. He would talk for 8 hours and 25 episodes (one for each letter of the French alphabet) on some of his most important philosophical concepts, as well as on fragments of his own life story. Deleuze, always reluctant to be interviewed or to appear on television, set two conditions for the realization of the program: his interlocutor was to be his dear friend, Claire Parnet, and that the recorded material was to be released only after his own death.

In “J comme joie” (J for Joy), Parnet interrogates Deleuze not only on the concept of joy in Spinoza’s work, but also in his own. According to Spinoza, joy is a concept of resistance that allows us to avoid “sad passions,” such that we live at the height of our strengths. This implies an avoidance of  “resignation, bad conscience, and guilt.” Deleuze affirms that in these texts of Spinoza’s, we can find an enormous, effective charge, and he briefly defines joy as “everything that consists in satisfying a capacity.” The concept of capacity, “puissance” may itself also bear something of a meaning of power, potency, or force, but in this Spinozian context, it refers to the potentiality of doing something – or in more contemporary terms, of realizing one of our abilities.

According to Deleuze, “you experience joy when you satisfy, when you effectuate one of your capacities.” For example, if one is a painter, joy consists in conquering “even a minimal piece of color.” In affecting the power of color, the painter experiences joy. And how is sadness defined in relation to that power? For Deleuze, this appears:

[…]when I am separated from a capacity of which I believed myself, rightly or wrongly, capable: Ah, I could have done that, but circumstances prevented it, or it was forbidden, etc. That’s sadness, one should say: all sadness is the effect of a power over me.

Within Spinozian philosophy, and by extension in Deleuze’s thought, “affecting one’s own abilities is always a good thing,” for there are no “bad capacities.” This leads us to the problem of the bad, that is, of power, which, according to Deleuze, is defined as:

the lowest degree of capacity is power. I mean, what is evil? It’s preventing someone from doing what they can. Evil is preventing someone from acting, from enacting their capacity.

Spinoza’s philosophy starts with an investigation of the exercise of power, and in that light, we can see the difference between power and capacity. Deleuze takes up again a comment from the interviewer:

You said that sadness is linked to priests, to tyrants, to judges, and these are perpetually the people who separate their subjects from what they are capable of, who forbid any enacting of capacities.

In this sense, Deleuze thinks that “all power is sad,” even if “those in power are delighted to have it.” He refers to power as “a sad joy.” That is, if joy is the putting into use of a capacity or a power, no putting to use can be strictly evil:

The typhoon is a capacity, it must rejoice in its soul. But it does not rejoice in blowing down houses, but in existing. To rejoice is to rejoice in being what one is, that is, in having reached the point where one is. It’s not self-satisfaction, joy is not being pleased with oneself, not at all, it’s not the pleasure of being pleased with oneself. Rather, it’s the pleasure of conquest, as Nietzsche said, but the conquest does not consist in subjecting people, the conquest is for example for a painter’s to conquer color. Yes, that’s a conquest, that’s joy, even if it goes badly, because in these matters of capacities when one conquers a capacity or conquers something in a capacity, there is the risk that it is too powerful for the person who conquers. So they will crack up, for example, Van Gogh.

The risk of exercising our own capacities is, therefore, the risk of being alive, of carrying out our capacities and our potentialities. This is because it would be inadmissible to live a life in conformity with only those who we pretend to be, without taking the opportunity to know ourselves thoroughly, and to take this to a new and unknown limit.

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