Below is the paper I presented at the RMMLA this morning. We had large audiences for the two Deleuze panels, great discussions, and my paper was very well received. My only regret is that I couldn’t really get into the details of Deleuze’s understanding of simulacra as “signal-sign systems” as the paper would have been twice as long, so I had to focus on his critique of Platonism. It’s absolutely gorgeous here in the mountains of Utah, though I’ve had a wicked headache since arriving as a result of the altitude. Hopefully that will go away by tomorrow. I should also add that I wrote this paper at the airport and on the flight here, so a number of my allusions are unreferenced. Go easy on me! At any rate, without further ado…
Interpretation hits the real.
The simulacrum enjoys a short life in Deleuze’s thought. Appearing primarily in Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense, the concept then disappears in his later thought. This is not, of course, so unusual in Deleuze’s work. As has often been observed, each of Deleuze’s texts creates a new conceptual constellation. However, later, in interview, Deleuze will remark that the concept of the simulacrum was a poorly formed, while nonetheless giving no explanation or account of just how this concept was poorly formed. In my view, if Deleuze was led to abandon the concept of the simulacrum, this was not for reasons pertaining to the endo-consistency of the concept or its ability to attain a coherence and consistency allowing it to stand and support itself, but rather for rhetorical reasons pertaining to phenomena of resonance and echoes within the philosophical tradition of representation. This rhetorical situation or set of exo-relations within the tradition of representation only intensified with the appearance of Baudrillard’s work which made the simulacrum its key concept, but in a sense directly opposed to Deleuze’s own intentions in mobilizing the concept. Where Baudrillard mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum diagnostically as a symptom of our times in a war against representation and the real, Deleuze, while sharing Baudrillard’s war against representation, mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum in the name of the real. In short, Deleuze mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum in the name of a realist ontology. If, then, there is a problem with the concept of the simulacrum, this problem is to be found at the level of the plane of expression where the signifier “simulacrum” continues to resonate all too easily with both the logic of representation and anti-realist thought that has dominated philosophy since the late 17th century.
From the beginning of his work until the end, Deleuze dismisses the thesis that metaphysics is at an end or that it has exhausted itself. This affirmation of metaphysics should be taken seriously. Since Heidegger, there has been an unfortunate tendency within Continental thought to conflate metaphysics with onto-theology and philosophies of presence. Rather than following a path of thought that would metaphysically overturn onto-theology and the primacy of presence, the decision was instead made to either a) abandon metaphysics altogether in favor of humanist correlationism, or b) attempt to achieve, as in the case of Heidegger, a passage beyond metaphysics to something called thinking. By contrast, to affirm the possibility of metaphysics is to affirm realist ontology against the correlationisms that have come to dominate philosophy, suturing being and the world to the condition of the human. Within the constellation of French thought arising out of the late 60s, Deleuze is singular in this affirmation of metaphysics.
In his own work, Badiou distinguishes between Platonic and Aristotlean orientations of thought. Where the Platonic orientation of thought is characterized by the affirmation of number or the matheme as the real, thereby breaking, he believes, with intuition, sensibility, and the suture of ontology to language and the human; the Aristotelean orientation of thought is premised on the affirmation of things as the mark of the real. To adopt the Aristotlean orientation of thought is to side with the primacy of primary substances, where the primary substance is understood not so much as a substrate of predication, but rather as an individual entity or object. Numbers or things, we are told, are our two options. And of these two options, Deleuze’s realism is an Aristotlean realism, affirming the reality of the thing, object, or individual.
However, in declaring that it is individuals that are real, that being is a composition of individuals, Deleuze must walk a fine and treacherous line. Deleuze must simultaneously affirm the reality of individuals against the thesis that objects are merely correlates of human minds, intentions, language, or society, while also overcoming the logic of representation that led to the correlationist turn or suture of being to the human first inaugurated by Kant. It is, paradoxically, in the name of an affirmation of Aristotlean realism that Deleuze mobilizes the concept of the simulacrum. In short, the simulacrum promises to be the strategic fulcrum through which it is possible to conceptualize a non-representational realist theory of the object or individual.
Already we can see the rhetorical problem that Deleuze must have faced in electing to treat the simulacrum as a strategic fulcrum for a non-representational realist ontology. As a philosopheme, the ancient concept of the simulacrum is deeply entrenched within the logic of representation. Insofar as the simulacrum is conceived as a degraded or illegitimate copy of a copy pretending to adequation with an object or an essence while nonetheless subverting this relation, the simulacrum is conceived not as a real being, but as a false and dangerous imposter of the real. One need only think of trompe l’oeil which we risk running into, confusing it with a real object or that deceive the eyes. However, conceptualized in this way, the affirmation of the rights of the simulacrum remains within the orbit of the logic of representation, merely affirming the primacy of representation over what it represents, holding that we never have access to the real but only to the precession of the simulacra or representations. In other words, such a move is merely an affirmation of the anti-realist option, thereby remaining within the framework of philosophies of presence, if only negatively. No. If Deleuze’s affirmation of the simulacra is undertaken in the name of a realist ontology, then he must undertake a delicate operation through which the concept of the simulacrum is de-sutured from the logic of representation, affirming simulacra themselves as the real and not as false representations of the real.
In his work during the 60s, Deleuze embraces the Nietzschean imperative wherein the task of modern philosophy is to reverse Platonism. It is within the context of this task that we must comprehend the strategic import of Deleuze’s concept of the simulacrum. However, when we reflect on this Nietzschean imperative, it cannot but strike us as a strange task for philosophy. Why is this the task of modern philosophy? Should not philosophy aim at a knowledge of being qua being, the conditions under which knowledge is possible, the way to the good life, or the means by which it might be possible to change the world? Unless reversing Platonism is intimately related to these sorts of questions, this imperative cannot but seem arbitrary.
If Platonism proves to be a privileged site of modern philosophical engagement, if it is the site to which we are obligated to return if we are to formulate a non-representational realist ontology, then this is because here a fateful decision is made that will reverberate throughout the subsequent history of philosophy. This reverberation will be subterranean and a quiet whisper, becoming invisible almost as soon as it appears like words written in the sand of a beach; but nonetheless it will continue to act beneath the manifest discourse of philosophy in much the same way that a snippet of speech overheard during childhood can unconsciously function as the theme or destiny of a person’s entire life without that person being aware of this complex theme acting within all his actions. In this respect, we are obligated to go spelunking to render an alternative form of thought available and possible. As Whitehead observed, all philosophy is a footnote to Plato and is, in this respect, Platonic. To claim that philosophy is Platonic is not to claim that subsequent philosophy endorses the doctrine of the forms or Plato’s particular metaphysics, but rather that the destiny of subsequent philosophy is determined by the frame and imperative first inaugurated by Platonic philosophy.
The privilege of Plato is thus twofold: First, what we find in Plato is the moral motivation for the distinction between appearance and reality, essence and existence, and the intelligible and sensible that will function as the organizing philosophemes around which subsequent philosophy is framed and which delimits the field of possibilities open to subsequent metaphysics. To claim the ground of these distinctions is moral is to underline that it is not authorized by the requirements of ontology or the being of being as such. Rather, Platonic ontology is contaminated by an axiological suture premised on the refusal to think being qua being. The “is” becomes subordinated to the “ought”, such that certain beings are excluded from the orbit of being on moral rather than ontological grounds. After Plato, this decision will go underground, enjoying a shadowy, unconscious existence, but will nonetheless continue to determine Western thought across the centuries. The point, then, is that this moral decision generates an inadequate ontology. Second, according to Deleuze, not only do we find the origins of this ontological inadequacy in Plato, but we also find the means of reversing Plato within Plato’s own thought.
In “Plato and the Simulacrum”, Deleuze observes that reversing Platonism does not lie in abolishing the distinction between essence and appearance, reality and appearance, or the intelligible and the sensible. This task had already been undertaken by Kant and Hegel (and later by phenomenology), and therefore could certainly not have been what Nietzsche had in mind by a reversal of Platonism. Moreover, the abolition of the distinction between appearance and reality continues to tie being to the condition of the human as can be seen in all those facile anti-realisms that continue to declare that the distinction between idealism and realism is meaningless while still placing the human and human phenomena at the center of questions of being, thereby revealing all too clearly that they hold that being is only thinkable in relation to the human, that being is subordinated to the condition of the human, and that apart from the human nothing can be said of being.
Rather, according to Deleuze, reversing Platonism requires “…bring[ing] [its] motivation out into the light of day” and “…’track[ing] it down’… the way Plato tracks down the Sophist” (LS, 291). In bringing this motivation into the light of day, a fundamental instability, a symptom, a knot in the real, is revealed at the heart of Platonic ontology and the subsequent philosophy structured around this Platonic decision. And just as psychoanalytic interpretation brings about a shift in the structure of desire through the speaking of the symptom, through bringing this symptom to the light of day, a crack is opened within the constellation of philosophemes structuring philosophical thought allowing for an-other thought and another path.
The motivation of which Deleuze speaks is the motivation for the method of division deployed in Plato’s late dialogues such as the Phaedrus, the Statesman, and the Sophist. Initially our suspicion might be that the dialectical method of division “amounts to the division of a genus into contrary species in order to subsume the thing investigated under the appropriate species…” (291). Indeed, this is how Aristotle would later understand Plato’s method of division and would be that around which he advances his critique of Plato for failing to provide a middle term grounding transport between the genus and the individual. Yet Deleuze argues that this is only a superficial or ironic aspect of division as mobilized by Plato (292). Rather, the real purpose, according to Deleuze, is to select lineages, “…to distinguish pretenders, to distinguish the pure from the impure, the authentic from the inauthentic” (292). In support of this thesis, he appeals to the frequent metaphors comparing division to the testing of gold.
In and of itself, this aim is not objectionable. If the method of division is beset by a fundamental instability, a fundamental inconsistency, then this is because in executing its task it must resort to myth. As Deleuze puts it, “…when division gets down to the actual task of selection, it all happens as though division renounces its task, letting itself be carried along by a myth” (292). This is the case in both the Phaedrus and the Statesmen. If division must resort to myth in order to carry out its task, then this is because “[m]yth, with its always circular structure, is indeed the story of a foundation, [p]ermitting the construction of a model according to which… [rival claimants to the authentic and the pure] can be judged” (292). The model, then, will be the form of the Same serving as a foundation, serving as the Forms, essence, the intelligible, and so on. What the model enables is selection with respect to the Similar, or the distinction between true and false copies. Although myth will, for the most part, go underground following Plato, it will nonetheless continue to function in a furtive manner across the history of philosophy in much the same way that the fundamental fantasy functions with respect to the symptom in Lacanian psychoanalysis.
Before proceeding to discuss where, precisely, Deleuze situates the reversal of Platonism within Platonism, it is worthwhile to pause for a moment and reflect on the significance of foundational myth as it operates as a selective mechanism allowing selection to take place between the good copy and the false claimant or simulacrum. Although Deleuze does not himself refer to him, it would not be inappropriate, at this juncture, to evoke the names of Claude Levi-Strauss and Lacan with respect to to the role of myth as a foundational selective mechanism. This detour does not do too much violence to his text for, during this period, Deleuze is thoroughly immersed within structuralist thought as can be seen from his essay written contemporaneously entitled “How Do We Recognize Structuralism?”, as well as the many structuralist themes that animate both Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense. During this period, Lacan and Levi-Strauss are constant points of reference for Deleuze.
If Levi-Strauss is of great relevance here, then this is because in texts such as “The Structural Study of Myth” and “Do Dual Organizations Exist?” he effectively shows that myth arises at that site, at that precise point, where a system is beset by an insoluble contradiction or formal paradox that cannot be surmounted through the resources of the system itself. Generally these paradoxes and contradictions are of a set theoretical nature, such that the membership of some entity within a set is impossible to decide, or where membership is both required and prohibited. In this connection, myth functions as a suture, a solution, that both marks or preserves the place of the paradox or contradiction within the structure while also allowing it to be surmounted and overcome. In his own work, Lacan will refer to these sites of formal impasse or impossibility as the Real, and will theorize this site as the place around which fantasy forms, serving a function similar to that of myth in Levi-Strauss, and where the symptom is produced as a remainder that must be marked within the system of the unconscious.
It is here, with reference to Levi-Strauss’ conception of myth and the Lacanian conception of the Real that we can get some mileage out of the thesis that the Deleuzian reversal of Platonism in the name of the rights of simulacra is undertaken in the name of a realist ontology. For as Deleuze proceeds in his analysis of Plato he notes something both peculiar and symptomatic in the three dialogues in which the method of division is most intensively deployed. Of these three dialogues, it is only in that dialogue that does not seek to select the good copy and exclude the bad copy, it is only in that dialogue that seeks to thematize the bad copy or simulacrum itself in the form of the Sophist, that myth does not appear. Within the Sophist, where the aim is to make the Sophist himself, the simulacrum of the philosopher, the target of Platonic definition, we find no foundational myth operating a selection between good-copies and simulacra. Moreover, by the end of this experiment, it turns out that the sophist and Socrates, the philosopher, cannot be distinguished from one another.
In this brief and extraordinary moment we encounter the Real, in the Lacanian sense, that animates Plato’s philosophy and which will govern the subsequent history of philosophy. It is here that the necessity of Plato’s recourse to myth becomes legible. If Plato must make recourse to myth, then this is because in covertly grounding his ontology on an axiological decision so as to select between the good copy and the false copy or the simulacrum, he finds himself in an ontological double bind where he must simultaneously hold both that the simulacrum is prohibited from the domain of being (on moral grounds) while also holding that the simulacrum is. Within this constellation, myth functions as the operator by which this selection and exclusion is accomplished, while simultaneously surmounting the ontological problem of the inclusion of the simulacrum within the order of being.
It is within this brief moment that Deleuze discerns the reversal of Platonism, for in the treatment of the sophist or the simulacrum in terms of the logic of division, in the absence of myth in this application, and in the indistinguishability of the philosopher or Socrates and the sophist that results, the structure of thought organized around the internal relation between models and good copies, essence and appearance, the intelligible and the sensible, is overturned. And if this structure is overturned, then this is because the being of the simulacrum is here articulated without recourse to a model regulating good lineages. In short, here it is disclosed that it is possible to speak the being of beings without recourse to a model functioning as a selective mechanism. Thus, on the one hand, Platonism fails in its recourse to myth, while on the other hand, it succeeds precisely at that moment where it seeks to articulate the being of that form of being, the simulacrum, that is opposed to all of its moral efforts. What is revealed in this moment is that the simulacrum is true being, or, alternatively, that true being consists of simulacra.
However, having reached this point where this thesis can now be articulated, it is necessary to proceed with caution. When thinking the simulacrum, our tendency is to think it as a copy of a copy that threatens to be mistaken with the real being of which it is a second order copy. Yet this thesis remains within the logic of representation precisely insofar as a copy of a copy is itself a re-presentation of a re-presentation. Under this model, the thesis that true being consists of simulacra would be the correlationist thesis that being consists of nothing but representations. In other words, it would be the thesis that we only ever relate to representations and have no access to being as such. However, reversing Platonism consists in undermining this entire representational logic. If, in the concept of the simulacrum, Deleuze finds the possibility of a non-representational realist ontology, then this is because the accent, where the simulacrum is concerned, is on the manner in which the simulacrum embodies a non-conceptual difference, not because the simulacrum is, falsely, portrayed as a copy of a copy. Plato had inscribed difference in the model in order to tame it by the logic of the Same and the Similar, thereby grounding the axiological selective mechanism he seeks. What is remarkable in the simulacrum is that it embodies a difference without a model. As Deleuze puts it, “[t]he simulacrum is built upon a disparity or upon a difference. It internalizes a dissimilarity. This is why we can no longer define it in relation to a model imposed on the copies, a model of the Same from which the copies’ resemblance derives. If the simulacrum has a model, it is another model, a model of the Other from which there flows an internalized dissemblance” (295). In freeing difference from subordination to identity, difference is now revealed as ground, being, the real. To be is to relate difference to difference through difference, whether we are speaking of a tree, mountains, persons, signs, or a revolution. In short, ontology becomes flat and the question of access to “true being” is abandoned insofar as being itself is always already difference.