Towards the beginning of his book Deleuze, Marx, and Politics, Nicholas Thoburn gives a nice summary of Deleuze’s ontology.
At one level, an initial presentation of Deleuze’s politics is a relatively simple task. Deleuze and Guattari are self-proclaimed ‘political’ thinkers. Indeed, politics is central enough to their understanding of the formation of life that they can write that ‘politics precedes being’ (ATP: 203). Deleuze’s politics, like indeed all his and Guattari’s concepts and categories, is closely related to his Spinozist and Nietzschean materialism, with its conception of the world as an ever-changing and intricately related monstrous collection of forces and arrangements that is always constituting modes of existence at the same time as it destroys them. Such a materialism conceives the world as not only without finitude, but also without delineated subjects or objects; let us call them ‘things’.11 Of course, this is not a refutation of the existence of things, but it is a refusal to present them in any ontological or epistemological primacy. There are things, but only as they are constituted in particular, varied, and mutable relations of force.12
If the world is at base a primary flux of matter without form or constant, then things are always a temporary product of a channelling of this flux in what Deleuze and Guattari call ‘assemblages’ or ‘arrangements’ (cf. ATP: 503″” 5).13 Nietzsche calls this channelling a process of ‘interpretation’: the process whereby matter is cut and assembled by a particular series of forces that, as Foucault’s work has emphasized, respect no ‘ideal’/’material’ dichotomy. Any interpretation of a thing or an event does not come after the fact, but is part of its composition, as one of many forces immanent to it. As Deleuze (n.d.a: n.p.) puts it: ‘Nietzsche’s idea is that things and actions are already interpretations. So, to interpret is to interpret interpretations and, in this way, already to change things, “to change life”.’ The coherence of things is not, then, a function of their position in the centre of a series of concentric circles of channelling or interpretation. Things are far more unstable than this. Without a primary form before interpretation, the thing is situated at a meeting point of a perpetually changing series of interpretations/forces and is thus never ‘finished’.14 A thing thus embodies difference within itself as a ‘virtuality’ or ‘potential’ to be actualized in different interpretations and configurations.15
This ‘virtuality’ is not in opposition to the ‘real’; rather it is the reality of a creative matter as it exists in ever-new configurations as the base of the real (it is in opposition only to the fixed determination of relations) (cf. ATP: 99).
Nancy (1996: 110) puts this well: Deleuze’s ‘thought does not have “the real” for an “object” – it has no “object”. It is another effectuation of the real, admitting that the real “in itself” is chaos, a sort of effectivity without effectuation’.16 Thus, it is not only that ‘facts is precisely what there is not, only interpretations’ derived from our historically formed values (Nietzsche 1968: Â§481), but that we are called to an active creation of new and different interpretations, or ‘lives’. If all is contested interpretation as the production of being, then politics is immanent to life, politics precedes being: ‘Practice does not come after the emplacement of the terms and their relations, but actively participates in the drawing of the lines’ (ATP: 203, 208). Interpretation, or politics, is both a process of intricate attention to what makes a thing cohere, what makes an assemblage work, and, as far as possible (it is not a product of a simple will to change, but is a complex and difficult engagement), an affirmation of new senses, new lives, or new possibilities.
In Deleuze and Guattari’s monist thought, then, ‘life’ has no primary forms or identities but is a perpetual process of configuration and variation, where politics is an art of composition, an art that affirms the variation and creation of life “” ‘molecular’ or ‘minor’ processes, against striation and identity “” ‘major’ or ‘molar’ processes (though, as I will show, there is no simple minor/ major dichotomy).17 The ramifications of this generalization of politics across the plane of life are great, and this manoeuvre plays a not insignificant part in the positive reception and use of Deleuze and Guattari’s works in recent years, where a frequent theme is an explication of this politicized life in a ‘politics of becoming’. However, at another level, this generalization of politics poses problems for an account, and indeed a development, of Deleuze’s politics. For, if politics is immanent to the creations of life such that politics is everywhere, one is left wondering what the specificity of politics might be. This question is explicitly taken up by Alain Badiou (1998: 16-17; 2001). Badiou argues that, in generalizing politics everywhere, Deleuze’s system lacks a specifically political register of thought. In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari isolate the fields of Art, Science, and Philosophy, paying intimate attention to the mode of creation specific to each, but they do not do the same for politics, leaving it as the essence or process of creation immanent to these spheres rather than anything specific in itself. For Badiou, the marker of a specifically political register is the engagement with capital; politics must be adequate to capital. Badiou of course knows that an engagement with specifically capitalist dynamics is a central feature of Deleuze’s work. He argues, however, that when it comes to a politics of capital, Deleuze drops the politics of creation and falls back on a rather politically empty model of ‘critique’.
Badiou’s point is important, and he is right to draw attention to the possible problems of generalizing politics across the terrain of life. His critique at this level is not, however, adequate to the depth and complexity of Deleuze’s politics. For, in Deleuze’s works, there is at once a rich conception of what a politics of life might be, as it is explored through a range of specific sites and problems, and considerable discussion of a political engagement with specifically capitalist configurations. Indeed, contrary to a distinction between creation and critique, I would argue that Deleuze’s project is precisely concerned to develop a politics of invention that is adequate to capital. And it is the very difficulty of, and commitment to, this project that necessitates that Deleuze does not delineate the specifically political register of thought that Badiou discerns as lacking. Politics for Deleuze is neither a specific field of human activity nor merely a generalized process of invention; there is an imperative to a grander project which bears striking similarity with that of Marx’s communism, a project which Deleuze and Guattari (AÅ’: 382) describe as the calling forth of a ‘new earth’. This project is not reducible to a political solution, but is rather a process of engagement with the social totality. It is for similar reasons that Engels (in Marx and Engels 1973: 12) describes Marx as a thinker of social, rather than ‘mere political’, revolution, why Negri (1999: 266) argues that the separation of the social and political is ‘unthinkable in Marx’, and why those related to left communist milieux often present their politics as ‘anti-political’ (cf. Bordiga n.d.; Dauve and Martin 1997). In this politics, the project of the new earth, as Ansell Pearson (1999: 211) aptly puts it, is a kind of ‘riddle’.18 That is, it is not something which can be laid out, mapped, and determined “” it can have no set structure or narrative, and is not available, to use Marx’s (1976: 99) words, like a recipe that can be drawn up for the cook-shops of the future. It is, rather, to be developed and drawn forth through a continual and inventive engagement with the forces of the world. Politics for Deleuze, then, is at once a process of the invention of life and an engagement with specifically capitalist relations. And in this it is the practice of a riddle, an undetermined and continually open, but no less practical, project.
I do not have a whole lot to say about this passage at the moment, beyond pointing out that such an ontological vision has profound implications for how we pose questions, think politics, and think critical analysis. If there is a debate or discussion to be had between a Zizekian-Badiouian orientation of politics and a Deleuzian orientation of politics, then it must be formulated at the level of their respective ontologies. Deleuze’s universe is a universe of interrelation and process, where entities are more variations than substances. It is for this reason that there cannot be a “politics of subtraction” for Deleuze, as beings cannot be subtracted from the field of forces in which they originate. Nor can there be a sudden leap out of the system or structure as there is in the case of Zizek’s Act, for precisely the same reason. Instead, there can be the intensification of potentials that inhabit the networks such that new distributions of forces are effected. Thoburn’s book on Deleuze and Guattari’s politics– first recommended to me by Nate(?) –is well worth the read. The text is characterized by a sobriety, seriousness, and critical attentiveness to actually existing situations that is often lacking in studies of Deleuze (i.e., it doesn’t prattle on about “creating monsters” and speak as if politics simply consists in creating works of art or inventing new perversions). However, more importantly, the text works very closely with the works of Marx, taking up the Marxist question of how one might draw on the potentials haunting actually existing capitalism so as to shift our contemporary socio-political organization. As such, it rises to poses a very serious challenge to a number of criticisms of Deleuze and Guattari such as those found in Zizek, Badiou, and Hallward. This is one of the more exciting books I’ve read on Deleuze in some time.
It can be found online here. Apparently chapter four is missing, but those who are interested can download it from Questia by doing free seven day trial with their service.