August 2006

In a disproportianately influential passage from Difference and Repetition, Deleuze writes,

Repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but does change something in the mind which contemplates it. Hume’s famous thesis takes us to the heart of a problem: since it implies, in principle, a perfect independence on the part of each presentation, how can repetition change something in the case of the repeated element? The rule of discontinuity or instantaneity in repetition tells us that one instance does not appear unless the other has disappeared– hence the status of matter as mens momentanea. However, given that repetition disappears even as it occurs, how can we say ‘the second’, ‘the third’ and ‘it is the same’? It has no in-itself. On the other hand, it does not change something in the mind which contemplates it. This is the essence of the modification. Hume takes as an example the repetition of the cases of the type AB, AB, AB, A… . Each case of objective sequence AB is independent of the others. The repetition (although we cannot yet properly speak of repetition) changes nothing in the object or the state of affairs AB. On the other hand, a change is produced in the mind which contemplates: a difference, something new in the mind. Whenever A appears, I expect the appearance of B.” (DR, 70)

Deleuze refers to this synthesis of repetition as habitus. The basic idea is very simple and straightforward– through the repetition of cases, the mind is led to anticipate what will occur next (B when I experience A) and retend what came before (A when I am now experiencing B). For instance, when I hear tick, I expect to hear tock and when I hear the first few notes of a song, I anticipate the remaining notes. (I say that this passage has been disproportionately influential as there’s been a tendency to reduce Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism to this classical Humean empiricism, ignoring his account of actualization in later chapters of Difference and Repetition which is concerned not with how we perceive or cognize objects as in Kant and Hume, but with the being of beings themselves), as can be seen in the work of Massumi, Baugh, Hadyn, etc. Indeed, Deleuze argues that the synthesis of habitus underlies the model of recognition that covers over difference, which entails that something is deeply amiss with readings of Deleuze that assimilate his account of repetition and difference to this first synthesis of repetition. It should be noted that Deleuze’s transcendental empiricism is an ontological account of beings and not an epistemic account of our relation to objects, as is the case with Hume’s habits. Therefore, the first synthesis can only be a small part of the story, not the whole of the story. Ironically, there’s a tendency to assimilate Deleuze to a repetition of the same in assimilating him to Humean empiricism and ignoring his genuinely metaphysical claims… Hume staunchly rejecting metaphysics).

The key feature not to be missed with regard to habitus is that the system of anticipations and retentions formed as a result of this synthesis cannot be resisted once they are in place. I cannot not anticipate “tock” when I hear “tick”. New habits might emerge as a result of experiencing new repetitions, but the synthesis that produces a particular experience of the world all occurs at a sub-cognitive level very close to what Skinner thought of as behavioral conditioning. When I am behaviorally conditioned, my salivation at the sound of a bell has nothing to do with any thought or attitude I might have with respect to the bell, but is rather an automatic response that occurs upon experiencing the bell that I can’t help but experience. Indeed, Deleuze writes that, “This is by no means a memory, nor indeed an operation of the understanding: contraction is not a matter of reflection” (DR, 70). Where Kant, in The Critique of Pure Reason, had understood understanding and memory as belonging to the spontaneity of thought or the power of freedom (memory plays a key role in the A Edition version of the transcendental deduction), these “syntheses of time” (ibid.) precede and condition spontaneity, occuring beneath any sort of reflective activity. Deleuze’s strategy here is to argue that spontaneity (what he refers to as “active synthesis”), would not even be possible without this passive synthesis that precedes reflective thought.

It is in regard to a conception of cognition such as this that I think we should read Foucault’s notorious rejection of ideology as merely the dust kicked up by relations of power, or as an epiphenomenon that fails to get at what is crucial. That Foucault presupposes something like a process of body-formation rendered possible by virtue of the synthesis of habitus comes out most clearly in his analysis of “docile bodies” in Discipline and Punish. There Foucault writes that,

The classical age discovered the body as object and target of power. It is easy enough to find signs of the attention then paid to the body– to the body that is manipulated, shaped, trained, which obeys, responds, becomes skillful and increases its forces. The great book of Man-the-Machine was written simultaneously on two registers: the anatomico-metaphysical register, of which Descartes wrote the first pages and which the physicians and philosophers continued, and the technico-political register, which was constituted by a whole set of regulations and by empirical and calculated methods relating to the army, the school and the hospital, for controlling and correcting the operations of the body… A body is docile that may be subjected, used, transformed and improved… To begin with, there was the scale of the control: it was a question not of treating the body, en masse, ‘wholesale’, as if it were an indissociable unity, but of working it ‘retail’, individually; of exercising upon it a subtle coercion, of obtaining holds upon it at the level of the mechanism itself– movements, gestures, attitudes, rapidity: an infitesimal power over the active body.” (DP, 137)

Foucault’s point seems to be that discourse and cognition (active synthesis) are completely circumvented in this formation of the body, such that the body is moulded to act automatically in a particular way in the presence of particular signs, regardless of the attitude the subject in question might have to these “habits”. Deleuze gives the example of the movements of a chicken as resulting from this sort of synthesis: “The nods of a chicken’s head accompany its cardiac pulsations in an organic synthesis before they serve as pecks in the perceptual synthesis with the grain” (DR, 76). Just as the chicken plays no active role in nodding its head in this way as it searches about for grain but does so automatically by virtue of the system of habits it organically is, the subject resulting from a disciplinary regime of the sort described by Foucault automatically moves and experiences affects in the way that it does as a result of a process of body-formation produced through repetition.

In this regard, I’m led to wonder whether Zizek’s shift of ideology from what we think about the world to how we subjectivize what we do in the world (“they know very well, but they’re still doing it!”), really hits the mark with regard to Foucault. I am not trying to suggest that Foucault is correct and Zizek is wrong. Rather, I find myself wondering whether active synthesis plays any role at all in the sorts of mechanisms of power Foucault describes. Zizek seems to converge with Foucault when he favorably cites Pascal’s dictum “kneel and you’ll believe”, but here there still seems to be the assumption of a decision to kneel, rather than a recognition of the way in which we’re thrown into certain conditioning environments and formed by them, prior to even reflecting on a decision of whether to act as others do (thus raising the question of whether issues of identification are even relevant to understanding certain social formations and attitudes giving the body form). Even if I come to recognize that despite knowing money is merely a sign (and nothing of value in itself), I nonetheless behave towards money in exactly the same way (according to Foucault) as a result of the way in which my body has been formed as a system of habits. That is, changing my attitudes towards money does not change how I behave in relation to money (money probably isn’t the best example), since this is a conditioned response, not a decision. I still behave like a chicken in relation to the grain. I am thus curious as to how Zizek might respond to this sort of criticism. Ideology critique can certainly take us far in how we behave towards various aspects of the world, but is it capable of targeting this level of passive synthesis described by Foucault’s power structures? Or to take a different example, can I cognitively change the way my body has been formed to recognize certain things as signs producing sexual arousal? Or are these signs, once put in place through passive synthesis, irreversable? Going to extremes, is there a sense in which something like architectual innovation and innovations in how we cut up segments of time can be more productive of change in how bodies relate to one another, than changing how we think or reflect the world about us? For instance, was the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian societies far more transformative of human relations than transformations in beliefs just because it transformed the experience of time (relating time to seasons and a particular order of activities during the day, rather than understanding time in terms of wandering and rest/hunt relations)? Clearly my ideas are vague here.

UPDATE: I’ve received some perplexed questions offblog as to why I use the term “passive synthesis” in discussing Deleuze’s first synthesis of memory. This is the language Deleuze himself uses in the second chapter of Difference and Repetition, “At the moment when it grounds itself upon habit, memory must be grounded by another passive synthesis distinct from that of habit. The passive synthesis of habit in turn refers to this more profound passive synthesis of memory: Habitus and Mnemosyne, the alliance of the sky and the ground” (DR, 79-80, my italics). Deleuze’s point is that these syntheses are an automatic activity of mind that occur without the intentional directedness of an ego or a transcendental subject. The target here is the Cartesian/Kantian/Husserlian tradition which presupposes the active agency of a transcendental subject or ego in all activities of thought (this is especially clear in the Kantian doctrine of judgment, where mind actively subsumes a particular under a universal such as in the judgment “Socrates is a man” using the a priori categories of the understanding as rules presiding over this subsumption). Deleuze’s strategy is to argue that ego and the active syntheses rendered possible by ego are emergent properties of sub-representational syntheses that presuppose no unified subject or ego as an agency carrying out these syntheses. In this regard, Deleuze’s conception accords with Nietzsche’s account of “doing without a doer” and his critique of the ego, in Beyond Good and Evil. From what I’ve been able to tell, Deleuze derives this specific term from Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations (cf. section 18, in meditation 2, entitled “Identification as the Fundamental Form of Synthesis. The All-Embracing Synthesis of Transcendental Time”). What is interesting about Husserl’s discussion of passive synthesis (which he elaborates continuously from this point on in his work on “genetic phenomenology”) is that this synthesis is a level of activity that precedes intentional directedness and is the condition of intentionality altogether. The question here revolves around that of sign-formation (generally an underexplored theme of Difference and Repetition… Deleuze discusses actualization in terms of the formation of signal-sign systems) and whether or not signs can cease to function as signs once they’ve been formed as signs through this synthesis of habitus. My point or question is that this form of synthesis is something other than the action of the signifier or the decision of an agent, though there is some parallel between Lacan’s notion of the signifying chain as automaton and the Humean account of habits. This dimension of habitus is one of the reasons, I take it, that Deleuze and Guattari are so keen on focusing on the ecological and institutional spaces in which a body is housed (which are fields of repetition or spaces where the body contracts certain repetitive rythms and forms a particular response to them, somewhat like the sailor who develops a particular gait or stride as a result of having spent a life at sea) in understanding certain pathologies and why they are critical of focusing on the signifier alone. From a clinical perspective, the important point would be that the agency of the signifier is unable to effect these habits.

A friend of mine sent me a link to these drawings of Jesus in ordinary life situations today. So I have to ask, are these a joke or did the artist genuinely intend them as devotional art? I recall years ago, as an annoying young man interested in disproving the existence of God, I took enjoyment in drawing absurd and disturbing consequences from the thesis that God is omnipresent. For intance, as omnipresent it clearly follows that God is there in the toilet when I defacate, etc. Clearly it’s unacceptable to shit on God, but how could this possibly be avoided if God is omnipresent? And if God is not omnipresent, well that means he’s finite and if he’s finite then he’s not God. Okay, sure, this kind of humor is crass and adolescent, but, well, I was an adolescent and this is how you console yourself when you’re brought up in a city filled with self-righteous zealots doing their best to transform the educational system and city laws. Well it appears that this artist is striving to think precisely this.

I particularly liked the image of Jesus with the executive. Was Jesus with the executives in charge of Enron? Knowing a thing or two about religious ideology in the United States, I have little doubt that the executives of Enron themselves thought this. Of course, there’s that monkey wrench surrounding all the communist teachings of Jesus and the early Christians. Perhaps Jesus whispers in their ears, diligently striving to persuade them to give up in their endless and ruthless pursuit and extraction of ever more surplus-value?

So really, are these drawings real or are they a joke? I’m particularly interested in what a Marxist analysis of contemporary religious phenomena might look like. What social forces, we might ask, have led to the resurgence of fundamentalist religious belief in the United States since the 70’s? My money is on the thesis that fundamentalist religious belief has come to fill the vacuum left in the wake of the collapse of genuinely emancipatory political projects coupled with globalization, rendering all of us playthings of economic fate with little or no control of our own lives (it’s not unusual, for instance, for those working in white collar jobs in the corporate sector to go through three or four job changes in the space of ten years due to layoffs and restructuring). With the collapse of emancipatory politics, we become Heideggerian: “Only a God can save us now.” It’s difficult not to get the impression that the omnipresent end of times fantasies present in contemporary American fundamentalist religious belief and cinema (Amageddon, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, the Terminator films, Dante’s Peak, Volcano, coupled with the stunning success of Timothy LaHaye’s Left Behind novels that can be found at supermarkets throughout the country, etc.) are indicative of a desire for the end or for some fundamental change… Who knows, perhaps films such as the Matrix trilogy and V for Vendetta are indicative that a new openness is beginning to be sensed and that we are collectively beginning to see the possibility of another way. In short, adopting a pseudo-Feuerbachian perspective, religious eschatology could be seen as an alienated desire pertaining to discontent with the social and a feeling of impotence with regard to our ability to change it.


65. And the Author of nature has been able to employ this divine and infinitely wonderful power of art, because each portion of matter is not only infinitely divisible, as the ancients observed, but is also actually subdivided without end, each part into further parts, of which each has some motion of its own; otherwise it would be impossible for each portion of matter to express the whole universe. (Theod. Prelim., Disc. de la Conform. 70, and 195.)

66. Whence it appears that in the smallest particle of matter there is a world of creatures, living beings, animals, entelechies, souls.

67. Each portion of matter may be conceived as like a garden full of plants and like a pond full of fishes. But each branch of every plant, each member of every animal, each drop of its liquid parts is also some such garden or pond.

68. And though the earth and the air which are between the plants of the garden, or the water which is between the fish of the pond, be neither plant nor fish; yet they also contain plants and fishes, but mostly so minute as to be imperceptible to us.

69. Thus there is nothing fallow, nothing sterile, nothing dead in the universe, no chaos, no confusion save in appearance, somewhat as it might appear to be in a pond at a distance, in which one would see a confused movement and, as it were, a swarming of fish in the pond, without separately distinguishing the fish themselves. (Theod. Pref. [E. 475 b; 477 b; G. vi. 40, 44].)

Pay special attention to the scene near the end, in the Church, which might be compared with the end of The Ring in terms of its theses about jouissance and repetition (the film must be shown to others, i.e., the trauma repeated in order to escape the girl’s jouissance), even though the films share nothing in common (there’s no surprising twist).

A proposal for reading said film through the juxtaposition of the actual and the virtual:



A nice line from Jodi Dean’s Zizek’s Politics:

Enjoyment, for Zizek, is a term of art, a technical, Lacanian concept that denotes an intense, excessive, pleasure-pain. Enjoyment by its very nature is excessive, something that can lure us into a kind of idiotic stupor or ecstatic state. Moreover, as I hope to make clear in this book, our relationship to enjoyment is never easy, never innocent. Enjoyment can be that extra kick on behalf of which we do our duty: “Sorry about that extra twenty dollars I tacked onto your ticket, ma’am, but, well, it’s the law” or “These comments I wrote on your paper may seem cruel, but, well, it’s really for your own good.” (xvi)

A nice remark from Deleuze:

Bacon often explains that it [the isolation of figures] is to avoid the figurative, illustrative, and narrative character the Figure would necessarily have if it were not isolated. Painting has neither model to represent nor a story to narrate. It has thus two possible ways of escaping the figurative: toward pure form, through abstraction; or toward the purely figural, through extraction or isolation. If the painter keeps to the Figure, if he or she opts for the second path, it will be to oppose the “figural” to the figurative… The figurative (representation) implies the relationship of an image to an object that it is supposed to illustrate; but it also implies the relationship of an image to other images in a composite whole which assigns a specific object to each of them. Narration is the correlate of illustration. A story always slips into, or tends to slip into, the space between two figures in order to animate the illustrated whole. Isolation is thus the simplest means, necessary thought not sufficient, to break with representation, to disrupt narration, to escape illustration, to liberate the Figure: to stick to the fact. (Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, 2-3)

Isn’t the figural succinct definition of jouissance as distinguished from the signifier? And aren’t the tendrals of barbwire in the film a graphic figure of how jouissance winds its way throughout the world, perpetually setting social relations awry? That is, jouissance is precisely that which defies or falls outside the narrative function, and thereby functions as the motor of narrative (as narrative perpetually strives to gentrify it). This is one signification of the discourse of the master:


Where objet a is the remainder of jouissance that perpetually escapes signification.

And finally a quote from Lacan on how ideology strives to manage or gentrify this excessive and individuating jouissance:

For what the unconscious does is to show us the gap through which neurosis recreates a harmony with a real– a real that may well not be determined. (Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, 22)

That is, he said, the unconscious introduces the figurative into the figure.

Having gotten past my recent embarrassing and indiscrete outburst, I’ve been thinking, once again, about the relationship between Luhmann and Badiou. Incidentally, is there anyone else in the world that actually reads Luhmann? Jodi recently mentioned that she studied under one of his students, but generally I find reference to Luhmann almost completely absent everwhere (there are a couple of references in Lyotard, and a few highly positive references in Negri and Hardt’s Empire, but other than that it is as if he doesn’t exist in the United States). I find myself completely astonished by this state of affairs, and almost feel a missionary zeal to encourage interest in his work, as it so nicely ties together other themes in contemporary political theory and social thought. Or perhaps I’m just missing something. At any rate, early in his discussion of systems, Luhmann observes that,

Elements can be counted and the number of positive mathematical relations among them can be determined on the basis of their number. The enumeration reduces the relations among the elements to a quantitative expression, however. The elements acquire quality only insofar as they are viewed relationally, and thus refer to one another. this can occur in real systems of a (relatively small) size only selectively, that is, only by omitting other equally conceivable relations. Thus quality is possible only through selection– but selection is necessary because of complexity. (Social Systems, 21)

I have been harping on this point a good deal recently, but the degree to which Luhmann’s account of systems is the mirror of Badiou’s ontology is remarkable. Imagine a collection of points. Each point can be related to every other point, in a way that we can describe exhaustively using mathematical terms. However, when dealing with the composition of any actual situation, we have only selective relations among elements, never a situation in which all elements are related. Systematicity just is the manner in which relations of elements are regulated. In Badiou’s terms, this would be described in terms of the re-presentation (State) and presentation of a situation. For Badiou, the elements composing a situation are always in excess how the state re-represents the situation.

From the standpoint of contemporary social theory, Luhmann’s thesis about relations and elements will not come as a surprise. By now everyone is familiar with the idea that there are no elements independent of relations and that there are no relations independent of elements. Everyone is familiar with the idea that systems constitute their own elements or that there are no elements independent of contingent systems. Indeed, what Luhmann presents is a highly formal, highly abstract, account of what figures such as Althusser, Foucault, Butler, etc., are up to with their critiques of essentialism, naturalization, and humanism. For instance, what we examine when we examine a Foucaultian episteme or power structure is simply the way in which a particular contingent system constitutes its elements (social subjects) and selectively regulates relations among these elements. Similarly, theoretical bodies such as psychoanalysis or schizoanalysis could be thought as examining the mechanisms by which which structural coupling takes place between organic systems falling outside social systems (human bodies) and social systems that draw on these organic systems as matter for the production of social elements.

What I find particularly interesting in Luhmann-Badiou’s approach, however, is this excess, this multiplicity, that perpetually seems to haunt the elements and relations constituting a system. The impression I’ve often gotten when reading Althusser, Foucault, or Butler is one of grim determinism, where my being as a social being is so thoroughly pervaded by relations of power or ideology, that any action I undertake is already undertaken in the name of that power or ideology (since I myself, as an element of the social system, am nothing but the manner in which I have been constituted as an element). That is, there is a certain inevitability to social relations as theorized by these thinkers that leaves little hope of change or escape. However, in indicating this excess of mathematically computable relations over selectively governed relations, Luhmann-Badiou alludes to a chaos that perpetually haunts any organization– mirroring, perhaps, what Deleuze-Simondon refers to as the “preindividual” or the “singular” –which provides a source of change and resistance. It is this excess that we witness in moments of revolution, orgiastic celebration, mob outbreaks, etc. In all of these instances, selective relational organizations break down, and we encounter something like a swarm without identity (the uncountable, the without-distinguishing-feature). By emphasizing the element of excess over organization, one gets the sense that perhaps certain questions have been posed in the wrong way, that there has been too much focus on organization and structure rather than what oozes out from the edges of systematicity. Perhaps it is in thinking the exess of possible relations over actual relations, that something like an Enlightenment subject becomes possible, a subject described by Zizek, when remarking that,

The cogitois not a substantial entity but a pure structural function, an empty place (Lacan’s $)– as such, it can emerge only in the interstices of substantial communal systems. The link between the emergence of the cogito and the disintegration and loss of substantial communal identities is therefore inherent, and this holds even more for Spinoza than for Descartes: although Spinoza criticized the Cartesian cogito, he criticized it as a positive ontological entity– but he implicitly fully endorsed it as the “position of the enunciated,” the one which speaks from radical self-doubting, since even more than Descartes, Spinoza spoke from the interstices of the social space(s), neither a Jew nor a Christian… (The Parallax View, 9)

…But a void. What Spinoza (or Descartes) was able to see as a result of their unique experience was the excess of multiplicity– multiplicity qua multiplicity –underlying any social organization, or the bubbling chaos beneath social organizations. Descartes experienced this as a result of his extensive travels and wanderings, while Spinoza experienced that as a result of being excluded from both the Jewish and Christian communities of Amsterdam. In occupying this position, both Descartes and Spinoza were able to see the ultimate contingency of how social elements and their relations are organized, and thereby experience themselves as a pure void. In this regard, the mistake of critiques of the subject such as those found in Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze, and Butler, is to suppose that it is a substantialist notion of the subject that is at stake in figures such as Descartes. These critiques end up replacing one substances (self-present res cogitans) with another substance– social customs, habituations, language, power, intensities, etc. However, what is important in Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes is not their substantialist conception of subjectivity, but precisely their insight into the subject as void, empty, in disjunction with any possible predicate with which it might occupy. Is it not precisely for this reason that the idea of multitudes as a break from all tradition was formulable only by the thinkers of the Enlightenment? Doesn’t the critique of these thinkers as presupposing a substantial subject determined by culture essentially miss the point… That the subject of Enlightenment was always a homeless subject, a subject that had lost it’s tradition and home through it’s very tradition? Would not the goal of a renewed Enlightenment thought be to become “a-topos“?

Based on a recommendation by a good rhetorician friend of mine, I’ve picked up Sharon Crowley’s Towards a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism. It seems to me that this issue is one of the core political issues facing the United States political field today– it is certainly one I grapple with on a daily basis with regard to both my students and administration –so I’m looking forward to what the author has to say. According to the blurb on the back of the book,

Toward a Civil Discourse examines how, in the current political climate, Americans find it dificult to discuss civic issues frankly and openly with one another. Because America is dominated by two powerful discourses– liberalism [by this the author means the Enlightenment] and Christian fundamentalism, each of which paints a very different picture of America and its citizen’s responsibilities –there is little common ground. The result is that civic discourse is frustated by incivility and impasse, as Americans avoid disagreement for fear of giving offense.

Sharon Crowly investigates the cultural factors that lead to the formation of beliefs, and how beliefs can develop into densely articulated systems and political activism. She asserts that retorical invention (which includes appeals to values and the passions) is superior in some cases to liberal argument (which often limits its appeals to empirical fact and reasoning) in mediating disagreements where participants are primarily motivated by moral or passionate commitment to beliefs.

Toward a Civil Discourse examines the consequences to society when, more often than not, argumentative exchange does not occur. Crowly underscores the urgency of developing a civil discourse, and through a review of historic rhetoric and its modern application, provides a foundation for such a discourse– whose ultimate goal, in the tradition of the ancients, is democratic discussion of civic issues.

One of the things I find so refreshing about Badiou is his return to militant forms of engagement. Badiou often likes to quote Mao, remarking that “when you have an idea, the one becomes two”. That is, ideas require you to take sides and to follow out the consequences of those ideas. Despite the fact that I had spent years studying the history of fascist and totalitarian movements, ideology, psychoanalysis, etc., I still found myself shocked at what happened to the United States after 9-11. Somehow, I think, I believed that the human race was, for the most part, fairly reasonable, that blind obediance and irrational hatred belonged only to the smallest fringe, and that the dark days of the red scare or the rise of the Nazis were behind us. I thought that the sort of mechanisms described in Orwell’s 1984 only worked in fictional novels, and that the manipulation of media and passions certainly couldn’t work in this day and age. After all, hadn’t we learned the lessons of the past? I was blind.

This leads me to wonder: Perhaps the problem isn’t one of finding a way to promote civil discourse or mediating disagreements at all. Perhaps the attempt to promote civil discourse simply maintains things as they are and actually works to the benefit of the fascists. Perhaps the entire problem is that a rather intellectually lazy and timid left in the United States 1) cringes at the thought of militantly taking sides as taking sides involves excluding others, of willing, in a very Nietzschean way, an affirmation that negates what can’t be tolerably willed to return (this “left” has gotten better, but not by much. the party system is most certainly broken and beyond repair), and 2) believes that some sort of deliberative agreement is possible upon which to base governance. That is, doesn’t Crowley’s error lay in desiring civil discourse, rather than unapologetically defending her Enlightenment ideals and secularism, and willing the end of religious obscurantism altogether and fighting for that aim? Here the Christo-Nationalists (and no I do not believe all or even the majority of Christians fall into this group or are “religious obscurantists”, so zip it with the defenses of Christianity and distracting remarks about how “not all Christians are like that”, I’m not talking about you tender heart!) have the right idea. They do not seek to persuade everyone, they do not seek to find middle ground. And twisted though it may be, these groups thereby occupy the position of subjects (in Badiou’s sense) or as engaged in politics (rather than statist deliberation). Instead of seeking middle ground, they militantly declare their positions and act on behalf of their axioms, come hell or high water. The recognize that the one becomes two and they will the end of that other side, the secular humanists. They act to try to bring about that end, by targeting the centers of subjectification such as schools, churches, media, etc., so as to produce non-secular subjects. Their aim does not consist in getting everyone to agree, but of establishing their power and transforming the very nature of the social field. They are not interested in compromise, but victory and triumph. They started small, initially being mocked and ignored, and now they are a huge movement, that has accrued a tremendous amount of governmental and economic power. Isn’t this sort of unapologetic, militant commitment to the Enlightenment cause precisely what is lacking on the American left? Isn’t there something forbidden in the idea of publically taking a stand and saying something like “this is nonsense” to the Christo-Nationalists that would rule our country, invade our bedrooms, and wage holy war?

Should the aim of political discourse be civil discourse? Does Habermas accurately describe political engagement? Or rather, is it precisely those who make no compromises, take no prisoners, and who unwaveringly commit themselves to their axioms and working out the implications of their axioms that ultimately produce change? In comparison to a “liberal rhetoric” [what Crowly describes] what does a militant rhetoric look like? What do you think?

It appears that there’s a great deal of vagueness surrounding the use of the term “virtuality”, and whenever it is evoked there is little that is specific said as to just what it is. As such, it is likely that there is a good deal of both false agreement and needless dispute, insofar as readers of Deleuze mean very different things by the term (especially since Difference and Repetition is so seldom read and there is an over-reliance on A Thousand Plateaus). First, let me once again emphasize that I fully agree with the claim that elements are nothing independent of their relations, and I have no problem advocating some version of potentiality or the idea that when matter encounters certain conditions new properties emerge. I have attempted to make this clear in foregoing posts, but apparently my commitment to an essentially relational conception of entity sans substance or atoms just isn’t coming across. I don’t think we need a special category of the virtual in order to advocate either of these theses.

I’m more skeptical of the thesis advanced by DeLanda, that the virtual is a modal category. I have been unable to find any evidence for this in my own close reading of Deleuze’s work, and see this as one of DeLanda’s liberties, where he attempts to push Deleuze’s concept of singularities in the direction of the chaos-theoretical concept of “strange attractors”. If one wishes to provide textual support for this thesis, then perhaps I will reconsider (incidentally, the claims drawn from Logic of Sense by Bobo pertaining to possible worlds do not here count, as Deleuze’s thesis is not that these worlds described by Borges are virtual, but that all possible worlds obtain, as contrasted to the Leibnizian thesis that only the best of all possible worlds obtains. This thesis is quite distinct from the concerns of the virtual). However, there is some question of whether chaos theory requires a concept such as this. There is nothing mysterious about a basin of attraction. If I roll marbles down the edge of a bowl they tend to settle in the bottom. I don’t need an additional dimension of the virtual to explain this type of an attractor, but can do so with ordinary cause and effect relations and discussions of force. Similarly in the case of strange attractors. Throughout DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy one gets the impression that he’s trying to preserve the category of the virtual because Deleuze insists on it, despite the fact that intensive magnitudes such as the surface tension described in the case of the soap bubble appear capable of doing all the work one might desire in giving an account of individuation. Applying Ockham’s razor, one thus wonders why we don’t just instead drop the category altogether. One doesn’t need the category of the virtual to argue that certain forms of relation only produce qualities or determinant values when reciprocally determined. Someone give me a real argument here that doesn’t beg the question!

Nor, I think, do Nick’s remarks about the virtual and mind answer the question, because Deleuze’s claims about the virtual pertain to being qua being, not being qua minds. That is, Deleuze unlike Kant or early Heidegger is not interrogating Dasein’s understanding of being or what being is for Dasein, nor how objects conform to mind, but is interrogating what being is for-itself. While it is certianly true that brain reduces disorder and imposes pattern on the world by selectively distinguishing information and ignoring other bits of information, Deleuze’s claims about the virtual are not simply about minds relating to world but hold for any entity regardless of whether minds exist. We must thus resist the temptation to treat Deleuze in traditional subject/object terms. Deleuze, like Spinoza, is developing a classical metaphysics that does not begin with the question of how mind relates to world.

What I am unable to endorse, so far (and I’ve tried), is Deleuze’s Bergsonism. Deleuze attributes four properties to memory. What’s important to keep in mind here is that the memory that Deleuze is speaking of is not one belonging to human minds or animal minds or computer minds, etc. Deleuze-Bergson’s thesis is that all beings unfold out of a pure ontological past that they actualize. Memory is a property of being, not of minds. Put otherwise, memory is not what neuropsychologists refer to as an engram or a trace, but is a property of matter itself. Deleuze, following Bergson, claims that ontological memory has four characteristics:

  1. Contemporaneity– According to Deleuze-Bergson, all of the past is contemporary with the present, such that the present is just the most contracted moment of the past. I am happy to agree that the present is always a product of the past, but I am tremendously uncomfortable with the thesis that the past is contemporaneous with the present in a manner that is perfectly preserved. When I remember I don’t simply pull up a trace, but leap directly into the past itself. I place myself directly in the past.
  2. Coexistence– According to Deleuze-Bergson, all of the past co-exists with itself or is simultaneous with itself. Like Freud’s description of the unconscious in terms of an ancient city in Civilization and its Discontents (cf. SE 21, 68-73), the entirety of the past co-exists with itself in a state that is perfectly current. Thus, for example, the first citizens of the city of Rome are still bustling about in a virtual dimension, as are every subsequent generation, up to today’s actual dimension. It is not simply that this past is preserved in a memory, but rather that it is perfectly preserved and co-exists with ever other level of the past (cf. the Bergson’s cone of memory).
  3. The Pre-Existence of the Past– However, Deleuze’s thesis isn’t simply that the past is preserved, that it is contemporary with the present and that it co-exists with itself. Rather, Deleuze goes one step further and claims that the past pre-exists the present. That is, the past isn’t constituted after the present as a copy of the present (an engram, a trace), rather the past exists prior to the present such that the present follows from the past and is actualized out of the past.
  4. The Co-Existence of the Past with the Present– Finally, the entirety of the past co-exists with the present such that the present is the most contracted state of the past. This is another way of saying that the present itself is the past. As I pointed out in a previous post, Deleuze remarks that the present is not and the past is. We can now see why. If the present is the most contracted state of the past, then it itself is the past and not the present. Indeed, there’s no longer a present at all.

As I remarked, I have tried diligently to find reasons to endorse these theses or to determine why someone would endorse these theses. I understand the paradoxes of movement that Bergson develops in his discussions of Zeno and why he believes that he must necessarily endorse claims of an ontological past in order to explain how movement is possible (without falling into Zeno’s traps), but certainly there must be a better solution to these questions. Try as I might, I simply cannot bring myself to accept the thesis that the past is anything more than an engram or trace in a neural system (or some equivalent) that perpetually reproduces itself across time through its own operations. What I cannot accept is that the past is. I have no difficulty accepting the thesis that certain relations only take on value in relation to one another (dy/dx), that they are nothing in themselves (dy is nothing in relation to y), and that matter is characterized by potentiality. But these claims can be made independent of any reference to a pure past as Deleuze outlines it in Difference and Repetition, and indeed we see these claims largely disappear in subsequent work (Deleuze even entitles a section of A Thousand Plateaus “Memories of a Former Bergsonian”). The real question to be asked is what problem does the category of the virtual respond to. This should be formulated in as concrete and explicit terms as possible (e.g., “it explains how creativity is possible” doesn’t do the trick and is the mantra of the cult of Deleuze, not a genuine effort to trace the geneology of this concept). Here it would be productive to carefully analyze Zeno’s paradoxes, from whence Bergson draws his inspiration. It should then be asked whether other solutions to this problem are possible.

Finally, any analysis of this concept should be based on close textual reading, not a desire to discern some prescient foresight into contemporary science in Deleuze’s ontology. For instance, DeLanda’s claim that the virtual is a “modal category” despite the fact that there is virtually no textual support (pardon the pun) to support this thesis and that Deleuze’s heavy reliance on Bergson and Simondon in the formulation of the virtual even counts against this thesis. There is a strange tendency in the secondary literature on Deleuze to desire translating his work into other terms such as chaos theory, complexity theory, evolutionary theory, even quantum mechanics (DeLanda, Massumi, Pearson, Protevi, etc). One does not find a similar tendency in scholarship surrounding other thinkers such as Heidegger, Badiou, Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, Marion, Zizek, and so on. I take this as a symptom that something is amiss with Deleuze. A thinker should be able to speak on his own terms and not require translation (support?) of a body of language as if to say “this is what x is really saying, he doesn’t really mean a, b, and c”. Indeed, with some of the secondary literature there’s even the occasional sense that there’s a prohibition against speaking directly about the Deleuzian text, as a violation of some imperative to “be creative and create monsters” (Massumi), such that Deleuze comes to mean whatever one wants him to mean and it thereby becomes futile to talk about Deleuze at all. On the one hand, I take this tendency to be indicative of a deep unease with something Deleuze is claiming (but which remains unarticulated), as if “saying that” would be unacceptable; while on the other hand, I take it that there is clearly something worth preserving in Deleuze, that there’s clearly something that he hit on, but that it needs to be separated from this other element. In fact, we could go one step further and declare, after the fashion of Lacan’s return to Freud, that there needs to be a return to Deleuze. However, here we would have to note how Lacan approached his return to Freud– Gone were all the energetic metaphors, the ancestral memory, literal fear of castration, etc that dot the Freudian corpus. For a traditional Freudian, Lacan’s Freud is largely unrecognizable yet still Lacan somehow manages to catch what Freud was trying to say without being able to say it. And it seems that something like this is also suggested in elements of Massumi’s, DeLanda’s, Pearson’s, and Protevi’s readings of Deleuze without quite being able to discard all the chaff and formulate a new ontology of Deleuzian inspiration. That is, there’s still too much attachment to Deleuze as the “master”. Rather than making Deleuze say what I would like him to say and ignoring what I take to be downright lunacy, I am instead trying to get clear on just what I find amiss in his thought and what I see as worth preserving.

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