UPDATE: Since being written, this post has gotten a lot of attention and traffic. After subsequent reflection, I have concluded that while Hallward’s book is well worth reading and is a carefully researched and well written study of Deleuze’s thought, the conclusions that he reaches are arrived at as a result of ignoring Deleuze’s account of individuation as developed in texts such as chapter 4 and 5 of Difference and Repetition, and as late as The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. The virtual cannot be detached from the actual in the manner suggested by Hallward. If Deleuze often emphasizes the dimension of the virtual over the actual, then this is because the process of actualization– as developed in chapters 4 and 5 of Difference and Repetition –tends to cancel difference in extensity. A focus on the virtual is thus designed to return to these missed potentialities and reactivate them so that new individuations might become possible. I develop these claims more thoroughly in subsequent posts on Deleuze.


As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been deeply impressed, if not envious, of Hallward’s study of Deleuze. This has to be the most careful and comprehensive discussion of Deleuze I’ve yet encountered anywhere. However, Hallward does present a substantial critique of Deleuze. In light of my previous post about repeating the Enlightenment, it might be worthwhile to explore this critique as to indicate why I am inclined to believe that Deleuze and Guattari are a dead end.

Succinctly summing up his account of Deleuze’s ontology, Hallward writes,

As we have repeatedly seen, the second corollary of Deleuze’s disqualification of actuality concerns the paralysis of the subject or actor. Since what powers Deleuze’s cosmology is the immediate differentiation of creation through the infinite proliferation of virtual creatings, the creatures that actualise these creatings are confined to a derivative if not limiting role. A creature’s own interests, actions or decisions are of minimal or preliminary significance at best: the renewal of creation always requires the paralysis and dissolution of the creature per se. The notion of a constrained or situated freedom, the notion that a subject’s own decisions might have genuine consequences– the whole notion, in short of strategy— is thoroughly foreign to Deleuze’s conception of thought. Deleuze obliges us, in other words, to make an absolute distinction between what a subject does or decides and what is done or decided through the subject. By rendering this distinction absolute he abandons the category of the subject altogether. (OTW, 162)

The fundamental distinction that governs Deleuze’s thought, argues Hallward, is the distinction between the creature (the organism, the actualized being) and the vital creating. The creature always marks a reactive limit to the creating, so the aim is to “counter-actualize” our being, so as to return to the eternal and unlimited virtual creatings that belong to the One-All or Whole, that are always non-relational, and that are unlimited in their differential being. For instance, following The Logic of Sense, we are not to think the wound in terms of the set of causes and circumstances that brought it about, but rather as radically subtracted from this dimension of actualization and as something that preceded us such that we only came to actualize it. The virtual creating of the wound as event is to be subtracted from the psychological, physical, and social context around which the wound comes-to-be.

Hallward gives an excellent example of what Deleuze has in mind, drawing on Deleuze’s reading of Dicken’s late novel Our Mutual Friend.

The unloved character Riderhood, who makes his living fishing corpses out of the Thames, himself almost drowns in that same river when his boat is run down by a steamer. Some onlookers then carry him, half-dead, up to Miss Abbey’s pub, and a doctor is called on to revive him. ‘No one’, Dickens writes, ‘has the least regard for the man; with them all, he has been an object of avoidance, suspicion, and aversion.’ Nevertheless, the spectacle of this struggle between life and death solicits a response deeper than empathy:

The spark of life within him is curiously separable from himself now, and they have a deep interest in it, probably because it IS life, and they are living and must die […]. Neither Riderhood in this world, nor Riderhood in the other, could draw tears from them; but a striving human soul between the two can do it easily. He is struggling to come back. Now, he is almost here, now he is far away again. And yet– like us all, when we swoon –like us all, every day of our lives when we wake– he is instinctively unwilling to be restored to the consciousness of this existence, and would be left dormant, if he could.

Life and medicine soon win the day, and the patient recovers. But ‘as he grows warm, the doctor and the four men cool. The spark of life was deeply interesting while it was in abeyance, but now that it has got established in Mr. Riderhood, there appears to be a general desire that circumstances had admitted of its being developed in anybody else, rather than that gentleman.’

The most important thing to retain from this exemplary episode, I think, is the crucial difference between the spark (virtual ‘creating’) and the person (actual ‘creature’) it animates… He is individuated by what he does and has done, by his origins and background, by the personality he has come to acquire, by the relations he sustains with other people, and so on. Such is the creature dimension. The spark of life, however, substists on a quite different plane. The spark is perfectly unique, perfectly singular –it is this spark, and no other –yet fully ‘separable’ from the object it sustains. This is the point that interests Deleuze:

No one has desscribed what a life is better than Charles Dickens […]. Between [Riderhood’s] life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death. The life of the individual gives way to an impersonal and yet singular life that releases a pure event freed from the accidents of internal and external life, that is, from the subjectivity and objectivity of what happens: a ‘Homo tantum’ with whom everyone emphathises and who attains a sort of beatitude. It is […] a life of pure immanence, neutral, beyond good and evil, for it was only the subject that incarnated it in the midsts of things that made it good or bad. The life of such individuality fades away in favour of the singular life immanent to a man who no longer has a name, though he can be mistaken for no other.

(OTW, 24-5)

I quote this passage at length because it illustrates, so well, Deleuze’s logic of the distinction between the creating and the creature, and what Deleuze is aiming at with counter-actualization. Hallward is able to trace this logic, with considerable detail and sophistication, from Deleuze’s earliest work all the way through his collaborative work with Guattari (“Immanence: A Life…” is Deleuze’s final published essay). What Deleuze ultimately aims at is this virtual dimension of a life that so captures the attention of the onlookers. This life is not the life of the organism, of a structure or system with a history, and which interacts with the world, but of the body-without-organs, that is free of all organistic constraints characterizing actuality, and which is essentially impersonal and anonymous, while remaining a singular expression of the One-All. For Deleuze, this is the dimension of true difference, authentic creativity, and genuine vital becoming. The actual is but a surface-effect, as Deleuze argues in detail in The Logic of Sense.

Now, what’s worth noticing in this incident depicted in Dicken’s novel, is that nothing changes with regard to Riderhood’s situation. The level of actuality characterizing the world or situation in which Riderhood appears (in Badiou’s sense) remains essentially the same. We are told that Riderhood occupies a certain position with regard to the other citizens. He is distrusted and disliked. For a brief moment, when approaching death, Riderhood becomes anonymous and impersonal life and this position disappears. But what the other characters identify with is not Riderhood, but the impersonal life that his actualized organism embodies. When Riderhood escapes death, the representational social structure returns in exactly the same form that it had before.

The point, then, is that impersonal singularities of the sort described by Deleuze do not transform the structure of a situation. Indeed, the situation continues exactly as it did before. In my responses to Yusef from the Enlightenment Underground, I argued that the thought of Deleuze and Guattari is essentially that of the slave. No doubt such a claim must sound strange from the standpoint of standard receptions of Deleuze and Guattari’s thought. However, these passages make clear just why this is the case. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel argues that the freedom of the Stoic is essentially a negative or vain freedom, in that it is freedom in thought alone, not in action (cf. “Freedom of self-consciousness: Stoicism, Scepticism, and Unhappy Consciousness”). As Epictetus argues, we are free to determine what we think, desire, and feel so long as we recognize that which is within our control and that which is not within our control. For Epictetus, of course, very little is in our control so the aim is to transform consciousness rather than the world. We must accept the world the way it is and go about changing how we experience this world by transforming the nature of our judgments, rather than transforming the world itself. Deleuze’s ontology and ethics is thus, essentially, the spiritual vision of the mystical wise-man calling for withdrawal from the world of fractured appearances, much like Plotinus calls us to escape from the multiplicity of appearances so as to discern the One. If Hallward’s reading of Deleuze’s ontology is accurate, then this is essentially what Deleuze and Guattari are offering us with their account of counter-actualization and lines of flight. Turn away, they say, from the predicates characterizing a situation and instead pursue vital life. This is something that can be practiced by slave, freeman, woman, minority, worker, denizen of Guantanimo Bay being tortured, etc. And significantly, it is something that does not transform the structure of the actualized situation, though it certainly might allow us to stoically endure the situations in which we find ourselves actualized.

It is not surprising that Deleuze would be led to this position, influenced as he is by Spinoza. However, if the point of philosophy, as Marx said, is to change the world, then it is clear that we cannot ignore actuality in this way. As Hallward puts it,

Deleuze writes a philosophy of (virtual) difference without (actual) others. He intuits a purely internal or self-differing difference, a difference that excludes any constitutive mediation between the differed. Such a philosophy precludes a distinctively relational conception of politics as a matter of course. The politics of the future are likely to depend less on virtual mobility than on more resilant forms of cohesion, on more principled forms of commitment, on more integrated forms of coordination, on more resistant forms of defense. Rather than align ourselves with the nomadic war machine, our first task should be to develop appropriate ways of responding to the newly aggressive techniques of invasion, penetration and occupation which serve to police the embattled margins of empire. (OTW, 162-3)

Deleuze and Guattari go a long way towards redeeming philosophy and rescuing it from postmodern skepticism and the claim that all is discursive constructions, yet, at the present moment in my thinking and understanding of their work, I do not think they go far enough. If we genuinely seek change, then actuality cannot be ignored in this way. My tendency has been to think Deleuze as a thinker of complex, emergent systems. Such systems, of course, pertain to the actual, not the virtual as understood by Deleuze. They are bodies with organs and in environment from which they differentiate themselves. They are emergent, but not from virtual singularities, but complex causal relationships. Hallward’s reading makes clear just why this is a significant misreading (something that could already be symptomatically sensed in DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, as it’s never clear there what the virtual contributes or adds to the already fine accounts of phenomena he gives in terms of systems). As Hallward remarks,

There is no more an interactive relation between this virtual or composing power and its actual or composed result than there is between a given set of genes and the organism that incarnates them. Along the lines of this last analogy, it might be worth briefly cementing this point with one final illustration, the case of biological evolution. As Deleuze and Guattari understand it, biological evolution proceeds neither through the relations of struggle, competition or support that may exist between actual organisms, nor through the dialectical interaction between actual organisms and their actual environment. As opposed to an ‘orthodox Darwinism with its focus on discrete units of selection’, they maintain that ‘evolution takes place from the virtual to actuals. Evolution is actualisation, actualisation is creation’. As Mark Hansen has recently demonstrated in convincing detail [Hansen, ‘Becoming as Creative Involution? Contextualizing Deleuze and Guattari’s Biophilosophy’, Postmodern Culture 11:1 (September 2000)], because they dismiss the actual ‘organism as a molar form that negatively limits life’, Deleuze and Guattari’s approach to biological individuation remains profoundly ‘alien to the conceptual terrain of current biology and complexity theory’. Rather than recent versions of complexity theory of post-Darwinian biology, the real models for Deleuzian individuation are again the theophanic philosophies of Spinoza and Leibniz. Spinoza’s account couldn’t be simpler. A human being, like any finite being, ‘has no power of its own except insofar as it is part of a whole […]. We are a part of the power of God’ (Expressionism and Philosophy, 91-2). (OTW, 52-3)

For me this is the most damning aspect of Hallward’s critique. Here it becomes clear just why it is so fundamentally necessary to banish the imaginary (in the Lacanian sense) fantasy of the Whole or Totality from philosophy altogether, for wherever there is a whole the individual becomes powerless and a mere fractal iteration of the All. The question, for me, thus becomes that of what’s worth preserving in Deleuze? What was it that so captivated me about Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense when I first began studying them so many years ago? And what was I reading into these masterpieces of ontology that was already my own?