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Simon Schleusener, Kulturelle Komplexität: Gilles Deleuze und die Kulturtheorie der American Studies (Bielefeld: transcript, 2015), 412 pp.:

Simon Schleusener, Kulturelle Komplexität: Gilles Deleuze und die Kulturtheorie der American Studies (Bielefeld: transcript, 2015), 412 pp.

So far, the affinity between Deleuze and American Studies has been a largely one-sided affair. While Deleuze has frequently published essays on American literature, and refers to American history as well as to American popular culture,1 American Studies in turn have largely ignored Deleuze’s writings.2

In a major and highly influential strand of a ‘revision’ of American Studies in the 1980s, the New Americanists drew on theoretical approaches such as deconstruction, “neo-Marxist, poststructuralist, and other literary practices” in order to reflect on as well as shift the prevailing “organizing principles and the self-understanding of American studies,” as the blurb on the back cover of Pease’s National Identities proclaims. Ultimately, the New Americanists sought to provide an ideological critique of what they saw as a liberal consensus within the field of American Studies, a consensus that attempted to place itself in a field outside of politics and ideology. In contrast, the New Americanists aimed at constructing a counter-hegemonic reading of ‘the canon’ by realigning aesthetics and politics in a more theoretically and politically informed manner. In the illustrious group of theoreticians and thinkers whose work provides the background for the New Americanists’ interventions into the canon—Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, Laclau, etc.—Deleuze [and Guattari] is/are conspicuously absent.

According to the New Americanists, the Old Americanists held one particular truth to be self-evident—“that American literary imagination transcends the realm of political ideology” (Pease, “New Americanists” 5). The result of such an “imaginary separation between the cultural and the public sphere” (8) was a naturalized and retroactive construction of a homogeneous ‘American essence,’ of a timeless ‘American Experience.’ However, both spheres—the literary and the political—remain within the hermetically sealed realm of culture. The change in the field-Imaginary, the recovery of the lost relationship ultimately remains a question of textuality and representation, a recovery of ‘the repressed context.’ The ‘identity-machine’ of the Old Americanists’ ‘field-Imaginary’—a national narrative producing national identities—is as closely “related to the field-Symbolic as paradigm is to syntagm” (Pease, “National Identites” 8), and this field-Symbolic consists of a “national symbolic order and matters (of race, gender, class) external to it” (3). The terms imaginary and symbolic evoke the Lacanian distinction of reality [which is defined by the suture of the imaginary and symbolic register] and the real, which is exactly what is ‘sutured off’ by reality. What such a perspective thus fails to take into view is this ‘real,’ the ‘other’ of culture—materiality and the body, and what Deleuze|Guattari call the rhizomatic and “immediate connection with an outside” (Deleuze and Guattari, Plateaus 19). This is a general problematic of much of today’s Cultural Studies, and Deleuzian thought precisely enfolds its innovative and revisionist potential in opening up the cultural field to materiality—neither a field-Imaginary, nor a field-Symbolic, but rather a complex field of [physical and cultural] forces.

Simon Schleusener’s convincing and, yes: beautiful study kicks in at precisely this point. It does explicitly not situate itself as an ‘antidote’ to American Cultural Studies—in its focus on pointing out and, even more, creating resonances between Deleuzian thought and American Studies. Schleusener’s study appears to be more of a gentle and inspiring corrective to worn perspectives and ‘never change a winning methodology’-approaches. Gentle and inspiring, but also clever: in choosing the term ‘cultural complexity’ as his motif (and title), Schleusener directly aims at the beating heart of American Cultural Studies—the ‘cultural,’ but a conception of culture that owes much to linguistic and social constructivism. The more complex (Deleuzian) concept of ‘culture’ that Schleusener offers here is one that works with complex temporalities, notions of the actual and the virtual (pace Bergson), and one that deals with manifold feedback-loops between seeming oppositions such as ‘nature’ and ‘culture,’ the material and the immaterial, base and superstructure, etc.

Schleusener convincingly shows the ‘singularity’ of Deleuzian philosophy (and its complexity) within the field of postmodern (or poststructuralist) theory, which is important when in some circles it’s all a mere question of pomo-superficial playfulness—différence or différance, Lacancan or Derridada, it’s all Greek (or French) to some … and then Deleuze … an even worse obscurant and delusional ‘thinker.’ Well, Schleusener shows them wrong, in a valuable introduction (and by no means simplification) to Deleuze’s philosophy that channels Deleuze’s ideas with regard to conceptions of time and subjectivity, the material turn, affects and desire, his take on literature and his philosophy of film—basically those concepts that are also at the focus of an American Studies interest, so that Schleusener is really up to ‘making connections’ here.

The introduction to Deleuze’s philosophy in the book’s first part is worth the admission fee alone—without difficulty, it could serve as a stand-alone work in its own right. But not enough—hand in hand with immensely convincing readings of texts (and methodologies) that lie at the center of American Studies, the book also entails a rereading of Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick, a film-philosophical localization of the Western genre, and a contemporary theoretical approach to the history of photography.

Schleusener’s rereading of Moby Dick not only opens up new venues to affect theory, Animal Studies, and ecocriticism; his Deleuze-inflected reading also connects these concepts to questions of power, law, and sovereignty, so that Schleusener very practically links recent discussions within American Studies to Deleuzian concepts, enriching the field of argumentation.

Two chapters stand out, both because of their intellectual depth, and the fact that here, Schleusener really works with Deleuze by going beyond Deleuze: the subchapter on Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and the whole chapter on photography. In both cases, Schleusener again succeeds in ‘infiltrating’ some core discussions in American Studies and complexifying them by a healthy and effective dose of Deleuze, but this time venturing into fields that Deleuze himself had not worked with. With regard to Dead Man, this is obviously the case because Deleuze himself was a dead man by the end of 1995, the year when the film was released. But Schleusener also goes ‘beyond Deleuze’ here, insofar as Deleuze had analyzed both the western and the neo-western in the context of the classical model of the ‘action-image’ (Deleuze, Cinema 1 145-81) without considering the possibility of a revisionary western like Dead Man—a movie that indeed resembles his film-philosophical notion of the ‘time-image’ (see Deleuze, Cinema 2) to a remarkable extent. With regard to photography, Schleusener transgresses Deleuze’s perspective in that Deleuze hardly ever commented on the medium, which he approached with a considerable degree of skepticism. One reason for this might be that his process-oriented interest in becomings and temporalities was better realized in the medium of film. By analyzing the work of photographers such as Robert Frank, Nicholas Nixon, Camilo José Vergara, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, however, Schleusener convincingly demonstrates that photography is able to dynamize time as well.

The beauty of Schleusener’s reasoning lies in his careful and ‘gentle’ way of creating resonances—not showing off American Cultural Studies as the black sheep, but always building bridges … safer and sounder bridges that is, based on a more sustainable concept of ‘cultural complexity.’ Schleusener’s is a productivist approach. He is not hanging on Deleuze’s lips, quoting him like the Holy Scripture (which would, in fact, oppose the very dynamism of Deleuze’s philosophy): Schleusener is rather thinking with Deleuze, thinking further, adapting and revising his concepts in their contact with other theories—affect theory, ANT, etc.—but always forging anchoring points with those topics close to American Studies’ agenda. Thus, Schleusener is true to the following observation—“those who criticize without creating, those who are content to defend the vanished concept without being able to give it the forces it needs to return to life, are the plague of [not only, B. H.] philosophy” (Deleuze and Guattari, Philosophy 28). The crucial point is not to be “inspired by ressentiment” (29). Schleusener succeeds all along the line. Simon Schleusener’s book Kulturelle Komplexität: Gilles Deleuze und die Kulturtheorie der American Studies is an important book, a beautiful book, a must-read for all Americanists interested in the (untimely) future of their discipline.

Bernd Herzogenrath (Frankfurt am Main)


[1] See e. g. Deleuze’s essays on Whitman, Melville, and Beckett, all in Deleuze’s Essays Critical and Clinical, or his Cinema 1 and Cinema 2.

[2]  There have however been a few sporadic attempts to show the relevance of Deleuze’s work for American Studies, e. g., D’haen’s Deleuze, Guattari, Glissant and ‘America’ and ‘Deleuze’; Schleusener’s “Deleuze und die Amerikastudien,” Herzogenrath’s An American Body | Politic, and various essays by Hanjo Berressem.

Works Cited


Deleuze, Gilles. Essays Critical and Clinical. Trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. Print.


---. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. London: Continuum, 2005. Print.


---. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. London: Continuum, 2005. Print.


Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. B. Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. Print.


---. What Is Philosophy? New York: Columbia UP, 1994. Print.


D’haen, Theo. “Deleuze, Guattari, Glissant and Post-‘American’ Narratives.” REAL 13 (1997): 387-99. Print


---. “‘America’ and ‘Deleuze.’” Traveling Theory: France and the United States. Ed. Ieme van der Poel and Sophie Berto. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1999. 39-53. Print.


Herzogenrath, Bernd. An American Body|Politic: A Deleuzian Approach. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2010. Print.


Pease, Donald E. “New Americanists: Revisionist Interventions into the Canon.” Revisionary Interventions into the Americanist Canon. boundary 2 17.1 (Spring 1990): 1-37. Print


---. “National Identities, Postmodern Artifacts, and Postnational Narratives.” National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives. Ed. Donald E. Pease. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1994. 1-13. Print.


Schleusener, Simon. “Deleuze und die American Studies.” Amerikastudien / American Studies 49.2 (2004): 219-40. Print.

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