Special thanks to N.Pepperell for spurring these thoughts, as misguided and inadequate as they are, in our discussion of agency over at Rough Theory.

Recently I’ve been thinking a good deal about the relationship between scene, agency, and act within the field of social theory and political questions. In many respects, these questions have been motivated by worries that have emerged around questions of individuation that I have focused on for the last year or two. The strategic value of Deleuze’s account of individuation is that it overcomes the peril of thinking about entities abstractly by underlining both how entities emerge or come to be in relation to a milieu and how they are characterized by ongoing processual relations to that milieu. However, the danger here is that we end up with a sort of determinism or social and political “physics” where no agency is possible because the agent is simply the actualization of a pre-personal field not of its own making. For Deleuze Ideas or Multiplicities are problems. An Idea is not something that an agent thinkers or conceives, but is rather an ontological category characterized as a field of differential relations and singularities (potentials) that are solved over the course of an actualization. Thus, for example, any particular tree is the result of an Idea or Problem in the sense that it revolves a set of potentials characteristic of both its own genetic constitution in larval state and its unique environment. Similar, for Deleuze, agents are not the agents of their Ideas (multiplicities), but are the patients of our Ideas. We are results of these problematic fields, not the ones directing the course of events.

The problem is that this way of conceiving agency– as largely epiphenomenal –seems to undermine any potential agency. I am not suggesting that Deleuze is himself guilty of this, though I do not yet have a textual answer as to whether or not he resolves this particular problem. Supposing that for Deleuze it is the intensive differences that compose being that are doing all the work (what Deleuze refers to as intensities, inequalities, or asymmetries in Difference and Repetition), there is a curious contradiction between Deleuze’s account of the nature of being and individuation, and what Deleuze actually does. On the one hand, Deleuze gives us an ontological vision of being as composed of pre-personal, asymmetrical intensive differences resolving themselves in the form of the actual entities we see in the world around us. There is no centralized control here, no plan, no goal, etc. Here we are actualizations of the intensive differences into which we’re thrown and develop and our thoughts are the epiphenomena of these processes (like Freud’s differential unconscious where there is no centralized homunculus controlling thought, but rather just a play of energetic differentials producing thought).

Yet on the other hand, Deleuze, at various points, expresses a preference for difference over recognition and identity, for the nomadic over the sedentary, for the anarchic over the state. That is, for Deleuze, philosophy is guilty of having chosen models of recognition, identity, the sedentary, and the state, and the philosopher of difference is exhorted to choose difference, nomadism, and the anarchic (literally the “without principle”). Yet if we are patients of our thought rather than agents of our thought, how can there be any question of choosing one way or another? If I am a thinker like Kant, wouldn’t I simply be actualized in such a way as to model phenomena in terms of recognition, identity, the sedentary, and the state? Wouldn’t this decision be out of my hands? My point is this: The presence of these judgments and decisions in Deleuze’s thought, at odds as it is without what looks like an ontology that would prohibit these sorts of decisions, indicates that his philosophy is haunted by an agent or agency even if this agent or agency isn’t itself explicitly theorized. The question would be one of rendering such a conception of agency explicit in an ontology that is otherwise so scenic in its orientation. I hasten to add that such a project does not amount to rejecting or dismissing Deleuze as “mistaken”. This is not, of course, a question I will be resolving in this post.

Perhaps the central defining onto-moral mark of neo-liberal conservative thought is an abstract focus on the agent to the detriment of the scene. That is, neo-liberal conservative thought begins with a conception of agency divorced from all context or development, attributes certain inherent features to these agents, and then proceeds to judge agents based on how well they perform. If, for example, someone is economically impoverished and lacking in education, this isn’t because they grew up in a place with terrible education opportunities, came from a broken home, and lived in an area where violent crime is an omnipresent fact of daily life, but rather because the person did not work hard, did not get an education, and did not live a moral life. This view, in short, posits that we can evaluate persons and things independent of the context or field in which they emerged and act. No doubt there is a tendency of thought to think in these terms by virtue of the way in which point of view does not itself present itself as point of view, but erases itself as point of view, undermining the possibility of discerning incompossible worlds. As Luhmann liked to say “we cannot see what we cannot see”. And what we see least of all is the place from which we see.

The value of sociological theory in this context is that it allows us to thematize the relationship between agency and scene by showing how agency emerges from scenes. That is, it surmounts the one-sided abstraction which focuses on the agent alone, and shows how the agent is always situated in a social world. Deleuze’s account of individuation, I think, provides the broadest possible ontology descriptive of this relation. Thus, for example, figures like Foucault or Kuhn show how the thought of a scientist is a product of the episteme in which s/he pursues research or the paradigm in which they are trained, rather than a function of the “genius” of an individual scientist dreaming up a particular theory ex nihilo. If, for example, we place all the emphasis on the agent in scientific discover, we would say that there’s no reason that Einstein’s theory of relativity couldn’t have been formulated in Athens in 500 B.C.E.. It’s merely an accident of history that a genius like Einstein didn’t exist at that point. On the other hand, if scientific discovery is a function of a broader social and institutional milieu, it follows that an Einstein wouldn’t be possible in that setting as the historical, social, and institutional network did not exist in this context. Similarly Bourdieu shows how taste isn’t an intrinsic feature of a particular agent, but is a function of a whole social and institutional network that cultivates taste in terms of class.

When we adopt such a dialectical perspective– dialectical in the sense of relational –the nature of the questions we ask changes. The question is no longer one of how we can punish or correct the agent per se, but one of how we can change social circumstances in which agents are individuated and act. Yet now we find ourselves in a new difficulty, symmetrical to that encountered in the case of focusing on the agent. For if the agent and thought are a function of the scene rather than the agent, then how is it possible for an agent to think beyond or independent of its scene? In the case of Foucault, for instance, the agent cannot formulate statements that violate the “logic” of the episteme. It cannot even conceive of such statements, for the agent is thoroughly subjectivized (produced as a subject… Think of Foucault’s account of docile bodies in The Order of Things) in and through its episteme (I concede this isn’t entirely fair to Foucault).

It seems to me that issues of how we conceive of temporality are at the core of these discussions and how we theorize social individuation. Whenever we talk about determination, conditioning, and individuation, we are implicitly also making reference to a certain circumference of time. Following Burke, by “circumference” I have in mind the “habitat” of relations something entertains with the world around it. For example, when I contemplate a boiling pot of water on my stove, I generally have in mind a very narrow circumference of relationships. For the most part I am only referring to the relationship between the stove burner and the pot. If I am a very precise and stodgy physicist, I might also take into account the room temperature, the altitude, air pressure, and so on. Even if I’m a Whiteheadean metaphysician who claims that each actual occasion (entity) shares definite relations to the entirety of the universe, I will nonetheless claim that some of these relations are more immediately significant than others. Here the circumference of time is fairly clear for those physical objects that characterize daily experience: the time of the object is the time of the immediately preceding moment and the simultaneous.

The key question is what is the time of agents and social systems? We get the sense that when speaking of social individuation, social and political theorists tend to think of temporal structures similar to those of the water boiling. That is, they think in terms of the time of simultaneity. Thus, of course it is obvious that agents are born into a particular social world that contains or surrounds them, they develop physically and cognitively within this social world, and thus the social artifacts of this world (language, texts, institutions, practices) are internalized such that we come to think and experience the world in terms of these coordinates. In a manner similar to the old Renaissance ideal of the individual as a microcosm reflecting God’s macrocosm, the individual is a microcosm of society.


The question is, does the temporality of agents and social systems function on this basis of succession and simultaneity as in the case of the pot and the burner? The answer seems to be no. For the minute we add memory, language, and archives into the mix, we get a very different sort of temporality. By “archives” I do not simply mean libraries and computer databases, but any lasting trace of prior human thought and activity. Archives have the curious property of undermining the logic of succession and simultaneity for human beings. Where physical time perhaps moves from past to present– at least at ordinary human scale –archived time loops back to the past in ways that leap over the immediate and preceding present, bringing us into relation with documents and texts that are not of our time. I can live my life in terms of the writings of Plato or Lucretius or Jesus or Mohamed, as texts that leap over the social field that surrounds me into simultaneity, introducing something foreign into this context. The late Renaissance thinkers, for instance, increasingly turned to the texts of Greco-Roman antiquity, to the works of the rhetoricians and the philosophers, leaping over the prior present or the thought of the Middle Ages.

It will be objected that these Renaissance thinkers nonetheless encountered these texts within the circumference of their own around-about time, their own simultaneous social setting. This would not be incorrect. However, no text is overdetermined by the social and linguistic field that is simultaneous with that field. The rediscovery of the text itself also introduces something into the field, creating a marginal space of freedom in which the subject can become agent, enjoying adventures that take him in directions other than the predominant structurations characterizing the social field.

The case is similar with memory. The temporality of memory is profoundly different from that of physical time characterized by succession, for memory is not simply the past, but is a past that co-exists with the present. Thus as Freud and Bergson both so nicely demonstrate, there can be levels of memory that are present with the present, that co-exist with the present, and that act, as it were, from a distance such that I repeat this past in the present. As Deleuze will say, all of my loves are a repetition of that love that was never present. Here there is an amorous attachment, a trace memory, that perpetually interferes with the determinative factors of the successive and simultaneous, guaranteeing that I am never quite in or of my time.

It would seem then that the place to look for something like agency in Deleuze would be in these temporal facts, in his discussions of repetition (especially the second psychoanalytic account of repetition in chapter two of Difference and Repetition), where Deleuze shows how the mnemonic is a condition for the spiritual. Perhaps here, in these amorous attachments and identifications we begin to see something like the possibility of an agency within an immanent field of individuations.