Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Postmodernism and Education: Relevance of Deleuzian and Guattarian Perspective for Education

  • Pieter-Jan Decoster
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_495


This entry will elaborate on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, both alone and in collaboration with Félix Guattari. In the first section, their philosophy will be regarded as a tool of analysis in relation to Western society. Deleuze’s concept of Control Societies will be introduced to discuss what the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard conceives as the postmodern condition. Additionally the first section will point out what the task of philosophy could consist of from a Deleuzian and Guattarian point of view. In an age of professional training, they argue that doing philosophy requires a pedagogy of the concept (Deleuze and Guattari 1994[1991], p. 12). In the second section, their philosophy will not be regarded only as a tool of analysis but as way of living and thinking in relation to the present. Their stance toward philosophy will be illustrated by discussing how nonphilosophical aspects of life – such as cinema, literature, science, and art – are incorporated in their work. In the third and final section, the relevance of philosophy as conceived in the first two parts will be discussed in relation to education.

From Disciplinary Societies Toward Control Societies

In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984[1979]), Lyotard shows that in the history of Western societies, there is a movement from a modern relationship with knowledge and truth toward a postmodern relationship. From the Enlightenment period onward and until the Second World War, knowledge predominantly received its legitimization in relation to the truth and subjective ideals recognized by a Western, rational society. Lyotard discusses Humboldt’s nineteenth-century idea of Bildung to exemplify how a modern relationship with knowledge translates itself into a general edification of the subject (Lyotard 1984, p. 33). However, from the 1950s onward, there is a delegitimation of this relationship with knowledge. In the contemporary, postindustrial society, and postmodern culture, the grand narratives of the Aufklärung have lost their credibility in favor of the principle of performativity, which translates itself into an almost exclusive obsession with efficiency and effectivity (Lyotard 1984, p. 37, 47–53). Lyotard’s famous report on knowledge thus shows that the business model can be considered as the blueprint for contemporary postmodern society.

In Postscript on Control Societies (1995[1990]), Deleuze takes a similar stance. Deleuze speaks of a transformation from Michel Foucault’s disciplinary societies toward control societies:

[Disciplinary societies] initiate the organization of vast spaces of enclosure. The individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws: first, the family, then the school (‘you are no longer in your family’); then the barracks (‘you are no longer at school’); then the factory; from time to time the hospital; possibly the prison, the preeminent instance of the enclosed environment.

(Deleuze 1995, p. 177)

Disciplinary institutions like the family, the school, the military, the hospital, and the prison literally confine the individual to a specific place, with specific rules to follow. Lyotard’s analysis of modern education which edifies the subject through Bildung can be situated within such a disciplinary institution. These institutions, in Foucauldian terms, enclosed the subject from the eighteenth century onward and thrived in the first half of the twentieth century.

Like Lyotard, Deleuze recognizes World War II as a fundamental turning point, after which there is an acceleration of new forces which push the old institutions of the disciplinary societies into a crisis. Reform after reform is being announced, “but everybody knows that these institutions are finished, whatever the length of their expiration periods” (Deleuze 1995, p. 178). The model of the corporation or business has replaced the model of the factory in every segment of society, including the field of education. In the disciplinary society, you always restarted from zero; “you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory” (Deleuze 1995, p. 179). The individual belonged to the masses, which were governed in the different enclosed environments like schools, factories, and prisons. In control societies, however, the business model dominates all these environments, and “you never really finish anything” (Deleuze 1995, p. 179). For Deleuze and Guattari, Kafka’s novel The Trial is very important because it shows a society constantly shifting between discipline and control. The Trial stands in between discipline and control, illustrating both modern and postmodern strategies. The novel is about “apparent acquittal (between two confinements) in disciplinary societies, and endless postponement in (constantly changing) control societies” (Deleuze 1995, p. 179).

Nowadays, Western societies are already deeply transformed into control societies. With the business model at its core, it creates rivalry and competition between individuals. Philosophy, Deleuze and Guattari argue, has not remained unaffected by “the general movement that replaced Critique with sales promotion” (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 10). This is in line with Lyotard’s analysis, who argues that in the postmodern society, knowledge has received a specific role it functions as an economic resource. In What is philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari describe an age of commercial professional training, where companies claim to be the friend of creativity and the concept, the core of philosophy, which has been shamefully picked up by information services and engineering. For now the question will be addressed how Deleuze and Guattari conceive philosophy should respond to this state of affairs. In the third section of this entry, the relevance of this point of view will be discussed in relation to education.

Only a pedagogy of the concept can prevent us from this “disaster for thought” (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 12). However, philosophy should not be conceived as the post-Kantian task of creating a universal encyclopedia. In A thousand plateaus (1987[1980]) and in relation to their well-known concept of the rhizome, they clearly distance themselves from the position of the all-knowing philosopher king. In this sense, Deleuze and Guattari do not argue for a return toward a relationship with knowledge which characterized the modern, disciplinary society. Deleuze and Guattari do not see philosophy fundamentally as a tool of analysis. In fact, doing philosophy implies going beyond the inclination of the analyzed and compartmentalized and dividing structure, to live and think differently. Therefore a pedagogy of the concept should be conceived as an act which releases the subject from identities, in favor of a movement in thought, this way releasing the possibility of thought. However, the pitfall is that today doing philosophy is reduced to superficial, ready-made texts or activities. It is not difficult to use the concepts of Deleuze and Guattari to talk about brainstorming, the fragmentation of life, the connections that are possible, the networks, etc. Therefore the second section of this entry will elaborate what a pedagogy of the concept nowadays could consist of. What does it mean, from the perspective of Deleuze and Guattari, to create concepts and avoid both analytic, dogmatic intellectualism on the one hand, and commercial, superfluous communication on the other?

The Relevance of Nonphilosophy for Doing Philosophy

In What is philosophy? the post-Kantian focus on a universal encyclopedia of the concept is contrasted with a pedagogy of the concept. Doing philosophy is not about having a just idea but about just having an idea, which consists of researching, time and again, under what conditions, a new concept can be created. This can be exemplified by studying how Deleuze and Guattari interpret the importance of nonphilosophy for what doing philosophy is about. Consider how they create a way of thinking in relation to the concept of “the rhizome” in A thousand plateau (1987). To think rhizomatically, and more in general, to do philosophy by creating concepts, involves considering how a thought or an event always can be approached through multiple ways. A rhizome is a stem of a plant, from which a new plant can arise at any time. Bulbs, tubers, rats, burrows, potatoes, and couch grass, however, are also examples of the rhizome. Deleuze and Guattari interpret Kafka’s literature as rhizomatic. The Trial, for example, grows from bureaucracy and systems of justice. Deleuze and Guattari use this concept as a force to react against a way of thinking deeply rooted in Western reality. To describe this Western way of thinking, they use the image of the tree or the root which “endlessly develops the law of the One that becomes two, then of the two that become four …” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 5). Deleuze and Guattari describe accounting and bureaucracy as trees or roots but also psychoanalysis and linguistics such as Chomsky’s grammaticality (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 7).

In contrast to this, “to be rhizomorphous is to produce stems and filaments that seem to be roots, or better yet connect with them by penetrating the trunk, but put them to strange new uses” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 15). The pitfall consists of interpreting the rhizome as a metaphor. As the Dutch philosopher Henk Oosterling argues, for Deleuze and Guattari, the world should not be interpreted like a rhizome. The metaphor suggests that a clearly identifiable reality exists, which the rhizome would then represent (Oosterling 2012, p. 188). In contrast, to write and to think is rhizomatic and results in a continuous becoming (Oosterling 2012, p. 191). “That about which is being written and how it is said are not juxtaposed as substance and form, but interweave, as content and expression” (Oosterling 2012, p. 197, my translation). Deleuze and Guattari are aiming at the possibility of a different kind of thought, and the nonphilosophy they use, such as literature, mathematics, painting, cinema, or concepts such as the rhizome, is to be interpreted as metonymic for this possibility.

A clear example of the relevance of nonphilosophy for doing philosophy is Deleuze’s cinema theory in Cinema 1 (1986[1983]) and Cinema 2 (1989[1985]). Deleuze does not use cinematic images to strengthen a particular point of view but rather researches what the implications are when the mind thinks “cinematographically.” For Deleuze, cinema always shows the world; watching cinema is a way of being connected to the world. It shows aspects of the world “in the process of being formed or dissolving through the movement of lines and points taken at any-distant-whatevers of their course” (Deleuze 1986, p. 6). “Cinema” comes from the Greek word “kinetic,” meaning “a motion.” As an art form, it has the potential to offer an experience of the world in which thinking does not think any more through a given method or a “presupposed image of thought which determines our goals and our methods when we try to think” (Deleuze 2004[1968], p. xv). Cinema is a practice of images and signs, created by great directors who think through moving images and create compositions of “images and of signs, that is, a pre-verbal intelligible content” (Deleuze 1986, p. ix). Deleuze conceived cinema as an automaton. What is important is that in line with Walter Benjamin, he believed that the task at hand is not to tame cinema but precisely to allow it to be an automaton and to render it spiritual. Deleuze conceptualizes his spiritual automaton as always consisting of two contradicting states of mind which nevertheless coincide. Cinematic movement and time influence the spectator who is conscious and unconscious, active but also passive, critical yet at the same time surrendering completely to the experience. Or as the French film director Robert Bresson puts it, cinema allows the spectator not to see what one is already thinking, but to think about what one sees (Bresson 1975).

Heidegger said: ‘Man can think in the sense that he possesses the possibility to do so. This possibility alone, however, is no guarantee to us that we are capable of thinking.’ It is this capacity, this power, and not the simple logical possibility, that cinema claims to give us in communicating the shock. It is as if cinema were telling us: with me, with the movement-image, you can’t escape the shock which arouses the thinker in you. (Deleuze 1989, p. 156)

Accordingly, in Deleuze’s work, both alone and in collaboration with Guattari, instead of a set of principles or a clearly delineated methodology, it seems rather that a philosophical attitude or ethos is coming to the fore. In fact, doing philosophy seems to imply an ethos as methodology. Deleuze and Guattari introduce the question what philosophy is by referring to a “moment of quiet restlessness, at midnight, when there is no longer anything to ask” (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 1). Furthermore, “the friend who appears in philosophy no longer stands for an extrinsic persona, an example or empirical circumstance, but rather for a presence that is intrinsic to thought, a condition of possibility of thought itself, a living category, a transcendental lived reality” (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 3).

The Significance of Deleuze and Guattari for Education

The first and second sections of this entry accentuated two different ways of looking at Deleuze and Guattari’s work. In the first section, it was exemplified that their philosophy can be used as a tool of analysis in relation to (aspects of) Western societies. In what follows, this way of thinking will be discussed in relation to the current state of affairs in education. As we saw in the first section, Deleuze’s Postscript on control societies clearly refers to a cultural and economic shift where old institutions are crumbling down in favor of new societal forms of organization. As a consequence, knowledge and learning and education are legitimated differently as well. Vis-a-vis the economic productivity of society, knowledge has become a primary resource. In a postmodern society, individuals select the knowledge they need “a la carte” in their specific contexts (Lyotard 1984, p. 49). This way, however, learning is not perceived as merely learning facts or insights as opposed to the modern idea of Bildung, in which learning was directly related to shaping a personality. Indeed, it cannot be compared to the modern idea of edification anymore. However, it does have a purpose as we can relate it to the business model Deleuze mentions or the performativity principle of Lyotard. Concretely this entails that when relating to knowledge, the individual is constantly preparing him or herself for the job market. Learning today does not simply imply that time and again, as long as one lives, one merely has the capacity to access information. Rather, it is “the capacity to actualize the relevant data for solving a problem “here and now” and to organize that data into an efficient strategy” (Lyotard 1984, p. 51).

In the light of both Deleuze’s and Lyotard’s hypotheses, the language of the UNESCO World Report clearly shows what learning is about nowadays:

The ‘learning’ model has spread far beyond the world of education, into every cranny of economic and social life. It is now increasingly accepted that any organization, profitmaking or not, needs to strengthen its educational, ‘learning’ side; and here it is important to note that the rise of this pattern coincides with that of innovation generally, in all areas of human activity. (UNESCO World Report 2005, p. 57)

This quote is indicative that the way education is perceived nowadays, indeed, is transforming from education as a means to edify the subject toward a focus on learning based on a business paradigm the way Deleuze conceived it:

[S]chool is being replaced by continuing education and exams by continuous assessment. It’s the surest way of turning education into a business. (Deleuze 1995, p. 179)

Factories formed individuals into a body of men for the joint convenience of a management that could monitor each component in this mass, and trade unions that could mobilize mass resistance; but businesses are constantly introducing an inexorable rivalry presented as healthy competition, a wonderful motivation that sets individuals against one another and sets itself up in each of them, dividing each within himself. (Deleuze 1995, p. 179)

In this quote, we read an important reference to the individual, which should be taken into account when thinking about how in education nowadays the emphasis lies on individual, student-centered learning. The individual is not enclosed anymore like in the disciplinary society but rather exposed to perpetual rivalry which “sets itself up in each of them, dividing each within himself.” According to this model of the corporation, “perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination” (Deleuze 1995, p. 179). If the factory and its workers are metonymic for the economic life in the disciplinary society, the business corporation and its employers are metonymic for the conditions in which we find ourselves today. Education, instead of shaping a character toward adulthood, would then organize the training of each individual to become an active participant of society and to relate to knowledge predominantly, if not solely, from an economical perspective.

This brings us to the relevance of what doing philosophy consists of as described in the second section of this entry. The significance of Deleuze and Guattari could imply that at least to some extent their method of doing philosophy is used to put education in a different perspective. So apart from using Deleuze and Guattari’s work as a tool of analysis to contemplate on the current meaning of knowledge and learning, the significance of their philosophy could also consist of a more fundamental experimentation with the concepts and events related to learning as it is conceived in a postmodern society. In other words, from a particular philosophical ethos, which is central in the work of Deleuze and Guattari, the control societies’ perspective on learning is not accepted and applied anymore, but interrupted or short-circuited, so that the activity of learning becomes a question again. Education then consists of creating a movement in thought and disturbing conventions, rules, dogmatic thought and commercial, and superfluous communication.


  1. Bresson, R. (1975). Notes sur le cinématographe. Paris: Gallimard.Google Scholar
  2. Deleuze, G. (1986). Cinema 1: The movement-image (trans: Tomlinson H., & Habberjam B.). London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1983).Google Scholar
  3. Deleuze, G. (1989). Cinema 2: The time-image, (trans: Tomlinson H., & Habberjam B.). London: The Athlone Press. (Original work published 1985).Google Scholar
  4. Deleuze, G. (1995). Negotiations (trans: Joughin, M.). New York: Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1990).Google Scholar
  5. Deleuze, G. (2004). Difference and repetition (trans: Patton, P.). New York: Continuum International Publishing Group. (Original work published 1968).Google Scholar
  6. Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus. Capitalism and schizophrenia (trans: Massumi, B.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1980).Google Scholar
  7. Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1994). What is philosophy? (trans: Burchell, G., & Tomlinson, H.). London: Verso. (Original work published 1991).Google Scholar
  8. Lyotard, J. F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge (trans: Bennington, G. & Massumi, B.). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. (Original work published 1979).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Oosterling, H. (2012). Rizoom. In E. Romein, M. Schuilenburg, & S. Van Tuinen (Eds.), Deleuze compendium. Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Boom.Google Scholar
  10. Unesco World Report. (2005). Towards knowledge societies. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.KA KoekelbergBrusselBelgium