Hope, negativity, and the temporality of revolutionary consciousnes

1. Deleuze’s innovation was to locate the empirical not in the given but between the psychological and the transcendental. From Bergson, Deleuze rejects the category of possibility, as being not the negation but the shadow of actuality, i.e., the “retrograde movement of the true” that constitutes the true itself, neither in the phenomena (given) nor in the in-itself, but in the actual as the determinate negation of the possible (thus according to classical ontology, the contrary to the real is the impossible). After Time and Free Will, the method of intuition becomes not only reflection on the time of our own lives but the opening of thought to other durations, above and below, across and perhaps even around.

But it is with another empiricism that Deleuze first arrives at the site of genesis:

having situated ourselves in a purely immanent point of view, which makes possible a description whose rule is found in determinable hypotheses and whose model is founded in physics, we ask: how is the subject constituted in the given? The construction of the given makes room for the constitution of the subject. The given is no longer given to a subject; rather, the subject constitutes itself in the given.

Against mathematical constructivism, Humean empiricism takes as the only possible beginning the hypo-thetical contingency of the sensible in the passions (as Deleuze says, “if it is true that association is necessary in order to make all relations in general possible, each particular relation is not in the least explained by association. Circumstance gives the relation its sufficient reason”). Humean empiricism is thus a skepticism, of course, but not one that motivates us to doubt the powers of the mind and to abandon reason to unreason. Hume’s famous dissolution of the substantial self opens thought to the affects that form our capacities and tendencies, whether toward truth or (eo ipso) to destruction.

2. Almost a century after the Great Depression, amidst the decimation of modernity, Geiselberger et al have proposed that we face the Great Regression from the twin threats of globalization and neoliberalism, which have awakened the repressed debt incurred by Enlightenment ideologies that are currently howling in open ressentiment, scapegoating, and sadism (both naked and ironic). Confusion, despair, and desperation drive us either to repeat the same gestures among ourselves or to seek compromise, common ground, and a return to normalcy by swallowing the blue pill. Yet neither should we be seduced by the solipsistic fantasy of the truth that demands nothing more, since there is always something more than the true, just as there is the good beyond being. The politics of resignation, however, remain in the shadows, comforted by the righteousness of common sense (“I’m just being a realist/pragmatist/…” or “in theory, yes, but in practice …”).

The politics of hope, on the other hand, goes beyond (what is given to thinking as) the true. In The Principle of Hope, Bloch distinguished between the expectant emotions, such as hope, and the filled emotions (such as envy and greed). The former open entirely onto a real future. The latter, on the other hand, refer only to an unreal future “in which objectively nothing new happens, [whereas] the expectant emotions essentially imply a real future; in fact that of the Not-Yet, of what has objectively not been there” (emphasis added). Hope is thus antithetical to restoration; hope is revolutionary when it recognizes that the given is not merely broken but also not worth repairing. Hope, Bloch says, is the “expectant counter-emotion against anxiety and fear, [and] is therefore the most human of all mental feelings … it also refers to the furthest and brightest horizon. It suits that appetite in the mind which the subject not only has, but of which, as unfulfilled subject, it essentially consists”. Yet unfulfillment, which intrinsic to each of us (and that constitutes our temporality, as Garrido argues), is also distributed unequally according to our situation. Thus, immediately after the above pronouncement, Bloch says that “out of economically enlightened hunger comes today the decision to abolish all conditions in which man is an oppressed and long-lost being”.

But as we know, those conditions are total, both within and across types: capital is inescapable yet we also cannot abolish class without also race and gender, for example. Thus the consciousness of those conditions must also be radically changed both in its content and its form, or at the level both of the true and its proof. What revolutionary consciousness requires is not only a theory of utopia but also of its temporality. The urgency of suffering makes its greatest demands on the immediate and the conceivable. It is this desperation that underlies Pieper’s criticism of Bloch’s notion of hope as one that, following Marcel, “is nothing if it does not deliver us from death”. If utopia cannot be expected in history, then we must seek its guarantee in another life (Kant, Nietzsche).

3. It is Negri who presented this problem with the greatest clarity:

The individual life of the social worker, his individual search for collectivity, is a tangle of contradictions, of negative conditions, of reified and reifying elements that should be submitted to criticism; and the liberation from which demands the recognition of the collective antagonism, the forming of the antagonism into constitutive instrument, knowing how to reach higher forms of collective corporeality (beyond individuality, beyond the family, towards ever more complex and ever more versatile communities). If individual revolt is the condition of liberation, if the continual crisis of individuality and of inter-individual relations, of sexual, racial, national relations, is the condition of anticipation and project – the negative labor that takes root in a manner that emancipates individuality … nonetheless it is true that that beyond that individualities want here, that new corporeality in which negative labour wants to realize itself, is not yet given.

The fundamental aporia is therefore not between the individual and the collective but, rather, in the distinction itself that presents the mereological contradictions and paradoxes of individuality as such, as one of the effects of the bourgeois construction of temporality in the current discourses of biology, medicine, and science. Thus, as Negri indicates, the site of thought’s struggle is between capitalist/statist and proletarian temporality (Negri explicitly identifies the body of the community as a “temporal territory”). The former defines the domain of the possible, whereas the latter lays bare the reality of suffering. Here thought rises not to the eternal but to the universal in the practical imperatives presented to it by its sympathy to the other – as Negri says, this freedom is one that “knows how to love” – in the rejection of all forms of life that reproduce antagonism, whether in life or in thinking. We shall perhaps not see a better world but only if one can be imagined can it be lived.

200,000 B.C: the creation of a world

            The world is dull penumbra and disorder
in the foreground where man is found.
But now the stars, concealing landscapes,
reveal the perfect schema of their [orbits].
            The current of time pools and gains order
in the numbered forms of century after century.
And conquered Death takes refuge trembling
in the tight circle of the present instant. (Lorca, Ode to Salvador Dali 45-52)

1a. Wittgenstein famously spoke of Lebensformen and Weltbilder as (quasi-transcendental) conditions of thought and practice. When he first introduces the term “world-picture”, his example is our certainty that the earth has existed prior to our own birth. The contrary idea need not be falsifiable but, rather, would require a radical conversion to another Weltbild (which may or may not have different truth conditions). Analogously to the way the arche-fossil sounds the empirical knell to transcendental philosophy, the critique of the (myth of the) given is simply the construction of a world at the chiastic intersection of the transcendental horizon of language and the material genesis of life.

1b. It is, actually, the second gesture of critique, qua genealogy, to ask what forces bind us to the given, presented as the objective against which the waves of desire and fantasy break. Against such historicism, the inauguration of critique is non-identity, which is mutually exclusive of the principle of sufficient reason (Schelling). A world is, therefore, not a gathering into an All but the totality of the invisible negation of the All, marked by the visible itself (as traces of the invisible), as that which is “behind” the visible in the structures of sense and sensibility.

“Becoming is always double, and it is this double becoming that constitutes the people to come and the new earth. The philosopher must become nonphilosopher so that nonphilosophy becomes the earth and people of philosophy” (Deleuze).

2. There must be only one ontological proposition: against the impossible (self-)coincidence of the One-All (or the identity of being and the good), we must affirm that being is not.* This proposition resides at the heart of the chiasm between ontology and logic, i.e., in language. Between Herder and Heidegger, we have in language not the form of reason but of being, precisely in the distance between the concept and the unity of sensation. Language is transformative not of experience (say, in poetry) but of the world itself through the name. “In the beginning was the Word.” A world in which a being can be named is made possible only in the nomination. “What’s in a name?” Perhaps, a world.

*Correlatively, a-theism must, against onto-theology, acknowledge the existence of gaps and gluts.

Therefore our valuation of a world ranges from empty to maximal because there are no facts (for the same reason that Schelling insisted that we cannot know, reflectively, the relation of thought to being). The sweetness is in the “rose”.

3. In some remote hypothetical catastrophe of natural history, the exuberance of life was suspended by the cacophony of thought. The most direct refutation of idealism, à la Moore, is the existence of a being through which being is (an)nihilated. The moment when humanity began to trample the earth was simultaneously creative and ruinous. The earth groans and rages beneath the weight of innovation and industry and takes its revenge in the anonymous death of thousands.

“A people can only be created in abominable sufferings, and it cannot be concerned any more with art or philosophy. But books of philosophy and works of art also contain their sum of unimaginable sufferings that forewarn of the advent of a people. They have resistance in common—their resistance to death, to servitude, to the intolerable, to shame, and to the present.” (Deleuze)

In “the time that remains” there is only one commandment: to love the world as oneself, which demands nothing less than the suspension of the ethical demands of purity of the will in the name of justice. The only possible repentance for the devastation of the earth is the creation of a world worthy of love.

The minor imperative

Williams’ accusation that morality is a “peculiar institution” is no more evident than in Schopenhauer’s reduction of freedom to guilt and accountability. The determination of will in an empirical character accounts for both the phenomenal individuality of action and, therefore, its (empirical) necessity while at the same time remaining fully within the Kantian solution to the antinomy of freedom: insofar as we regard ourselves as noumenon our reflective experience manifests as will and yet transcendental freedom is real only as a particular feeling.

Kant was fully aware, however, of the highly mediated nature of self-affection. Morality is only possible by virtue of the weakness of reflection and a fundamental passion first proposed by Shaftesbury. For Shaftesbury, the moral sense is a reflective affection: not the capacity for generosity, e.g., but the affirmation of such a desire. The capacity to be so moved, Kant argues, however, is itself an act of reason. Yet Kant insists equally on the mind’s receptivity, e.g., to the moral ideas as the condition for reason’s activity. Similarly, in the Analytic of the Sublime, Kant observes that the mind must be “attuned” to the feeling of the sublime in a way that requires the influence of culture (even if it is not produced by it) “in something that, along with common sense, we may require and demand of everyone, namely, the predisposition to the feeling for (practical) ideas, i.e., to moral feeling”. Unlike the beautiful, the inadequacy of the sensibility to the infinite requires the “dominance” of reason “for the sake of expanding it [sensibility] commensurately with reason’s own domain (the practical one)”. The role of such an elevated sensibility is not cognitive but, rather, conative since its object is not found in nature (or, for that matter, even the idea of nature); instead it is the terror of the infinity of reason’s practical task itself that morality must transform from fatalism to action. The binding force of the categorical imperative requires

the determinability of the subject by this idea—the determinability, indeed, of a subject who can sense within [herself], as a modification of [her] state, obstacles in sensibility, but at the same time [her] superiority to sensibility in overcoming these obstacles, which determinability is moral feeling—is nevertheless akin to the aesthetic power of judgment and its formal conditions inasmuch as it allows us to present the lawfulness of an act done from duty as aesthetic also …

The Christian passion gives us an image of this conatus that explodes the encircling tendency of self-affection in the agony of the one who must suffer for the love of humanity. Such love is one of the moral feelings that made the mind receptive to the imperatives of duty, which appear simultaneously as if from the outside (from desperation and weakness) but also as if from the inside (from the strength of will to be moved from a noble self-respect). The will moved from duty is moved irresistibly by the appeal of humanity’s fragility and the horror of its reduction to bare life and such a will is ultimately bereaved by the passion of suffering.

But if the possibility of morality were predicated on actual suffering it would not be transcendental. The appeal of suffering has its power not from its exceptionality but rather in its ubiquity and invisibility. The cry of anguish reveals suffering too late and morality passes too easily into retribution for the fact of suffering or else we are moved merely by pity. Suffering has a transcendental role when precarity transforms cosmic fatalism into a love for humanity.

Yet humanity is never given; it must be perpetually constructed. This is why the sublime is propaedeutic for the impossible task of the transcendental imagination: to experience the inadequacy of its own power to cognize the ideas of reason as the necessity of acquiescing to reason’s practical task: “the imagination thereby acquires an expansion and a might that surpasses the one it sacrifices; but the basis of this might is concealed from it; instead the imagination feels the sacrifice or deprivation and at the same time the cause to which it is being subjugated”.* Kant insists that the sublime is primarily not to be found in nature—and especially takes pains to warn us against adolescent awe at the night sky as diminishing us to insignificant specks (for such judgments are teleological and not aesthetic)—but in the formality of the idea.

*Or: “the object of a pure and unconditioned intellectual liking is the moral law in its might, the might that it exerts in us over any and all of those incentives of the mind that precede it. This might actually reveals itself aesthetically only through sacrifice (which is a deprivation—though one that serves our inner freedom—in return for which it reveals in us an unfathomable depth of this supersensible power, whose consequences extend beyond what we can foresee).”

This formality is necessarily dialectically incomplete: “aesthetic purposiveness is the lawfulness of the power of judgment in its freedom. [Whether we then] like the object depends on [how] we suppose the imagination to relate [to it]; but [for this liking to occur] the imagination must on its own sustain the mind in a free activity” (translator’s interpolations). But, thus undetermined by experience, the reflective mind is faced by its own fundamental passivity, which, however, is logical and not temporal: it is always inferred from its effects. The liberation of ideas from sensible experience makes possible pure acts of expression whose constraints are not the usual conditions of discursive consistency but the endurance of an imagination whose activity is never applied to the given. The constants of expression are suspended and thought is turned from appearances toward the shadows: not to be dispelled but varied according to our points of view (or what Løgstrup calls a “sovereign expression of life”). Here, in this transcendental singularity, the imperative of the moral idea refuses the refuge of certainty either in conviction or in the constancy of sense; without the assurance that the ideas of reason are real—and thus where negation can lead only to nihilism—we are left only with the possibility of creating their reality: it is for this reason that “becoming-minoritarian as the universal figure of consciousness is called autonomy” (Deleuze). Thought’s practical task neither begins from nor arrives at the given but, rather, passes through existence as insufficient to satisfy its fundamental drive.

Further notes on the line

There are no lines in nature.

All thought occurs in lines.

There are many lines

But all lines tend toward a single line:

This tendency is the texture of thought.

A line has no structure: it is itself tendency (élan).

Structures are lines—

In the indiscernibility of matter and form.

There are many lines—

Of words, steel, melodies, fields, worlds, and flight.

A line is not the terminus of a surface

But a plane is the limit of a line:

As the transformation of the insistence of a line to the existence of a point

(There is thus a stratification of point, line, and plane).

One and nothing: free variations

1. Along the way toward expressing the thoughts of God before the creation of the world, Hegel’s logic consumes the possibility of mathematics at the highest moment in the doctrine of being. Just before his explicit treatment of quantity, however, he includes a note on Leibniz’ monadology and observes that “plurality remains as a fixed fundamental determination, so that the connection between [monads] falls only in the monad of monads, or in the philosopher who contemplates them”. What Hegel has grasped only vaguely here is that for Leibniz mathematics and metaphysics express the same thought, i.e., that mathematics understands the world in the same way as the divine intellect (which is the real meaning of his remark at the determination of a maximum is the work of the divine mathematician who determines the greatest number of compossibles in a given world). Leibniz’ “new mathematics”, he says, “makes man commensurate with God”.

The problem of plurality to which Hegel refers is Leibniz’ notion that the infinite (number of) monads are representations of a single universe (Monadology §78) without thereby understanding this universe as substance.* Leibniz struggles to provide an adequate topological model of such a universe** and instead speaks of the “accommodation” or harmony of all things.

*One is tempted to say “Spinozist” substance were Spinoza’s definition of substance as “one” not problematic from a mathematical point of view and which would require extensive work in disambiguation. Rather, we might safely say here “Aristotelian” substance up to and including Heidegger’s interpretation of ousia.

**Elsewhere I have claimed that such a model would be something like a Klein bottle.

2. Yet we should remember that the essence of harmony is a fundamental gap or discontinuity in what the sensibility desires as unity. The law of the series that guarantees the immanence of the world in the monad (what Badiou calls the “absolute interiority” of the monad) allows us to speak of the monad as one in a strictly different sense than that of the universe.

Here we might benefit from recalling that this is the Platonic problem par excellence. Against the Aristotelian dictum that being is always a being (i.e., that unity follows immediately from being)—and Aristotle’s well-known confusion of the Indefinite Dyad as two “counted-as-one”—Plotinus’ account of substantial number accounts both for the ontogenetic differentiation of being (see, e.g., Enneads VI.6.15) and for the fact that the One is not enumerable. What is at stake, philosophically if not mathematically, in Platonist mathematics is precisely the capacity to distinguish the one in the order of intelligibility from the unity of any individual. Being, for Plotinus, exists only because it inherits unified number from the One and, conversely, multiplicity is not the division of the One but the intellect’s contemplation of the One. We might say that substantial number is the “form” of the monad—as the immediate image of the One—combined with the “matter” of the Indefinite Dyad or, in perhaps more precise language, the Indefinite Dyad is nothing other than the limitation of unity as apostasis (and reciprocally, according to the Neopythagorean conception of monadic number, the monad is the limit of quantity: the monadic number is a progression to and a regression from mulitiplicity), the intellect is nothing other than substantial number, which is why being is not itself number but number is the principle of being.

3. What does it mean, then, to be a thinker of the One? Or, perhaps more modestly, what is at stake is the character of our ethics. For a thinker of the One, ethics is beyond being, in a sort of pagan transcendence of that which cannot be counted-as-one, as opposed to an ethics of the void, which must resist, perhaps violently, the capacity for being named and that must tear itself away from the very conditions of its survival. Our choice, however, is not that between excess and subtraction since the Plotinian One is nothing other than a series of negations: not to move away and not to progress “even a little” to the two. If there is not a symmetry between these two orientations, our choice seems to be in what direction this negation operates: whether the difference that counts is a negation of the given (multiplicity) or in the (im)possibility of negating what does not exist (a double negation!).

The fundamental decision of metaphysics

Ancient philosophy enforced a decision between speech and silence. When modern philosophy accused its predecessor of therefore confusing being and nothingness (since to say what “is not” cannot be said does not preclude the identity of the being of what is not), we were asked to choose between the unity or the difference of being and thought. Hence, for example, Badiou’s characterization of the constructivist position in metaphysics declares that what is unnameable simply “is not”, such that metaphysics finds itself in a position of absolute immanence that “maintains the entire dialectic of the event and intervention outside thought”. Such a position, of course, simply begs the question as this is precisely the point for someone like Deleuze (see the plane of immanence as the image of thought). Rather, between the constructivist (Deleuzian) and generic (Badiousian) orientations of thought, beyond the difference between excess and subtraction, lies perhaps this fundamental choice: whether to address the genesis of thought through an account of the names of being or whether to name the indiscernible point at the chiasmus of thought and being (what Badiou nominates as the “void”) but which therefore cannot be either. If Badiou right to insist that, for the constructivist, the event is prohibited from thought, we must decide if the vocation of philosophy is to culminate in the science of thinking (logic and metaphysics) or in the affections and passions of movement (physics).

The death of criticism

Jameson had feared that, under the conditions of global capitalism, the possibility of “critical distance” from the zoological monstrosity (Nietzsche’s term) of capital has been abolished: “the prodigious new expansion of multinational capital ends up penetrating and colonizing those very precapitalist enclaves (Nature and the Unconscious) which offered extraterritorial and Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity”. Like Lyotard and Deleuze, Jameson had offered criticism the gift of a single possibility: that thought should be possible in the space of a local representation within the unrepresentable totality of capital of the unrepresentability of that totality (there is no paradox here but, rather, a strict typology). For Lyotard, for example, this possibility arises in the form of a single question: Is it happening.

There is evidence, however, that criticism can no longer, in good faith, accept the hope that Jameson offered and perhaps it is here that Jameson’s utopianism parts ways with Deleuze: there is no exterior to capital (Deleuze’s acceptance and even affirmation of this proposition constitutes his essential Nietzscheanism). But rather than saying that capital creates its own exterior, it is more interesting—and horrifying—to see that its most important function is to create its own interior.

But what has escaped sufficient attention is that essence of capital consists not only in desiring-production but in its mute consumption of criticism (that results in something much like the cytopathic effects of viruses on healthy cells): even the unjust, the ugly, or the banal can become objects of consumption with the proper “will to enjoyment”.

Although not really in a position to speak on the matter (though interesting precisely for that fact), Miley Cyrus recently said, commenting on a recent infamous cultural episode, that “it should be harder to be an artist”. Whereas the previous generation of critical theory had feared the commodification of art—and the attendant reactionary tendencies of bourgeois art that provided critical art with its image in a counterfeit double—we now see the ontological collapse of art into capital. In these studios that provide, for a modest fee, petite-bourgeois philistines with the opportunity to display their cultural vulgarity under the guise of liberal-democratic aspiration,* we might think that capital has finally delivered a less-than-merciful coup de grace.

*Although, as a final insult, these studios declare their commitment to “music, not the pursuit of fame”.

But the real danger is not the death of art but the impossibility of criticism. We have known for a long time that capital is oblivious to intentions, yet the ironists persist in their failure to recognize their own self-contradictions. The latest product of these music factories has apparently earned its customer at least $20K not despite but precisely because of its ineptitude—and this is the ironists’ final victory. What we should mourn is not the death of art—which is now simply the outsourced product of mechanized labor just as the shoes we wear—but the helplessness of criticism in the face of it. And the proper vocabulary of such mourning is silence, to which criticism now seems to be reduced.

More thoughts on immanence

1. In a fairly late text (Tentamen Anagogicum, 1696), Leibniz declares that there are two “kingdoms” in nature that “interpenetrate without confusing or interfering with each other”: power and wisdom. The former denotes the “interior” relations of forces and efficient causes (i.e., physics) while the latter denotes the architectonic domain of final causes (the totality of formal determinations), i.e., metaphysics. The doctrine of pre-established harmony has the consequence that the reality of possibility is simply thought itself (Mercer reminds us that the doctrine of pre-established harmony is an extension of the sympathetic participation of each individual with the divine essence). Only a small but important difference separate Leibniz and Berkeley here: for Leibniz, ideas are not real beings but collapsing the distinction between ideas and spirits simply radicalizes Leibniz’s immanentism: individuals do not “have” or “contain” ideas but simply are ideas. An intentional idea is at the same time a reflexive idea just as the productive understanding of God is self-understanding.

But because Leibniz refuses the absolute immanence to which his doctrine is compelled, he must explain the difference between the confused and highly mediated understanding of the individual from that of God. And it is here that he introduces the notion of a “point of view”: the monad simply is a point of view. But instead of the optics so important for Descartes and Berkeley, Leibniz gives us topology (analysis situs). Berkeley’s optics raises space to the status of a third thing between perceiver/d; Leibniz’s conception of geometry provides us with the formal analysis of form as an account of perception in the monads (qua phenomenal) that, at the same time, explains their irreducible multiplicity (qua ontological): “the theory of similarities or of forms lies beyond mathematics and must be sought in metaphysics” (“On Analysis Situs”).

Yet perhaps the place Leibniz reserved for transcendence is merely a sign whose mode of signification is exactly how he would describe its referent: i.e., whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. In a letter to Mason, Leibniz affirms the principle that “a living being cannot die unless the whole universe dies (or perishes) as well”. But the theodical doctrine should not be read merely as a moral principle: this world—as the “optimal” possible world—is thus necessary. Yet it is Leibniz and not Spinoza who is ridiculed for his commitment to the necessity of the world when both men are committed to the doctrine of universal determinism as the ultimate the condition of possibility for the intelligibility of the world. If there is transcendence in Leibniz, it must consist in the possibility of rigorously differentiating the monad he calls God from any other monad.

2. The idealist tradition after Kant recognized that his decisive maneuver in the critical turn was to provide an account of transcendence only on the basis and possibility of immanence, i.e., that the restrictions on the use of concepts are legislated by reason itself: the immanence of thought and the transcendence of world (which goes under the quasi-religious name of finitude). Every idealist—and, for that matter, materialist—after Kant has repeated and re-affirmed this observation: that transcendence (to be beyond being, for example) must be immanent to itself and that immanence, being “in-itself”, must transcend itself (else it is not “in-itself”). To escape this dialectical solution, Deleuze proposes to conceive of immanence not as being-in-itself but as difference. Yet at the same time he declares the univocity of being as a redress to the Kantian legacy: philosophy concerns not the thought of difference (Hegel, Heidegger), which in any case must lead to idealism. Philosophy itself is nothing other than the expression of difference; the “method” of philosophy is deterritorialization or virtualization. This is why the plane of immanence is “the image of thought, the image thought gives itself of what it means to think” (and why the domain of the concept is the virtual while, importantly, the “discursive power of the function” pertains to the actual). The plane of immanence—as the critical point between the virtual and the actual—names the volatile unity of thought and being. Philosophy—this movement toward the virtual—would not be possible if the virtual were merely thought as “potential” or, similarly, if becoming were thought as the movement from the virtual (to the actual). The attempt to identify being and the event destroys philosophy. The plane of immanence names the condition of possibility for philosophy by the non-reversability of the lines from the virtual to the actual and in the other direction—because we must pass through the event. This and nothing more is meant by “materialism”: the plane of immanence not as a substratum but as the duality of thought and nature, neither in-itself (being) nor for-itself (act, entelechy), but affection or life.

Some thoughts on immanence

CN wrote:

“I’ve been wondering if it does not immediately sound crazy to you to recouch the distinction between the virtual and the actual in Difference and Repetition less as about two ontological realms (hence running the risk of something like Badiou’s criticisms of equivocity) and more as a noumenal/ontological and phenomenal/epistemic distinction in line with a kind of Leibnizian epistemology. In other words, why does Kant have to be either an epistemologist or an ontologist? Leibniz’s mistake according to Kant was, as far as I can tell, thinking he could rely on an ontological realm of monads that provided the sufficient reasons for the various perceptions expressed by monads in the activity of perception. On this account, however, we get the genesis of perceptible objects, which are also merely counted as one. What phenomenally/epistemically appears to us is conferred unity via the perceptual activity of the monad when in reality, that phenomenal unity (a real phenomenon) is built up out of an infinity of minute “petite” perceptions (it would, of course, be dogmatic to assume such silliness for Kant).

“If, as some want to do, we want to say that the virtual is the sufficient reason of the actual and all determination proceeds from it to actualization, why not make some similar move in Deleuze? I.e., at an ontological level, things are clamorous, yet at the representational/perceptual/actual level, things are synthesized/counted as one.”

The question here seems to concern the possibility of accepting the gambit of transcendental philosophy that forces a decision on how to mediate the unity of thought and being. The transcendental illusion is the failure to recognize that the domain of immanence is the use of concepts, which is what separates dogmatic metaphysics from critical philosophy. But what is the latter’s metaphysics?

Kant’s famous argument that “existence is not a predicate” is revisited in the KRV not simply as a modal principle: the “possibility that nothing exists” is self-contradictory insofar as such a possibility destroys the very notion of possibility. Hence, Kant says, “all concepts of negations are … derivative, and the realities are what contain the data and, so to speak, the matter or the transcendental content for the possibility and thoroughgoing determination of all things” (A575/B603) and says that this determination is a “transcendental substratum in our reason” which is “nothing other than the idea of a total reality (omnitudo realitatis)” (A576/B604).

But to arrive at metaphysics, we must go further. In the Opus Postumum, Kant says that God is “the most perfect in respect of every purely thought quality (ens summum, summa intelligentia, summum bonum). All these concepts are united in the distinctive judgment: God and the world—in the real division of the negative or contrarie oppositum, which the totality of being comprehends. Both are a maximum … the one as object of pure reason, the other as sense-object. Both are infinite: the first as magnitude of appearance in space and time; the second according to degree (virtualiter), as limitless activity with regard to forces (mathematical or dynamic magnitude of sense-objects)”. Kant does not retreat from the doctrine of God as a regulative ideal into the dogmatic, speculative path that begins with the unconditioned and proceeds, a priori, through the entire series of the world to arrive at the contingent individual. Rather, for both Kant and Leibniz the function God as a structural principle, more than the metaphysical principle of the ens realissimum, promises the unity of a world (of experience). Leibniz not only refuses the identity of God and substance—in the name of infinitely many substances—but preserves a single place for transcendence.

But do we really have absolute transcendence? God and world or God or world? What is Leibniz’s world? Monads are not in a world: the world does not exist outside or apart from the monads. Perception is not of a world but perception is the world obscurely and incompletely expressed by each monad (hence there is no distinction between metaphysics and epistemology for Leibniz). But exactly the same is true for God: hence the doctrine of compossibility arises from the identity of perception and understanding in God. Kant’s critical turn simply inverts the Leibnizian schema insofar as, for Leibniz, perception precedes and conditions understanding (hence the limits of our understanding is one of degree and not kind with respect to that of God’s—Monadology §60). In Kant’s terms, Leibniz’s dogmatism consists in the fact that there is nothing other than phenomena. In this (local) sense, there is only immanence.

Leibniz derives the infinity of individual monads from this immanence in the doctrine of compossibility: the individual is composed of singularities and a world consists of the convergence of singularities. The question of “real possibility” is retained in Kant as a problematic (and hence dialectical) notion. But is not virtuality nothing other than a real possibility? The greatest mistake of immanentism has been to confuse virtuality with (abstract) possibility or Aristotelian potential. Deleuze is explicit on this point in Difference and Repetition: “the virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real … Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: ‘Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract’ …” But the distinction between the virtual and the actual is not a numerical difference (such would violate the univocity of being). The concept here is Bergsonian: the virtual, memory, or the past is what is most fully real. There are two possible ways, then, to describe the actual: either as a subtraction from or contraction of the virtual (e.g., the famous cone of memory in Matter and Memory) or as the folding of the virtual, that is to say, a self-limitation of the virtual (that is experienced as tendency, futurity, or time).

It is precisely this immanence lurking in the KRV that Fichte and Maimon exploited: the reality of transcendental apperception that threatens to collapse the division Kant proposes between thought and being. Leibniz, Fichte, and Maimon converge in Deleuze, perhaps, as well on this point: that thought occurs in an “intensive space” and that, consequently, metaphysics provides a genetic account of being whereas physics is the account of the actual.

Some recapitulations

1. Life without being (… or nature): Without further clarification, the term “critical vitalism” stands under the threat of implosion. Its integrity is predicated, moreover, on its differentiation not only from the two halves of its contradictory namesake but also from prior attempts at such synthesis, which have tended toward the disaster of culture that we now call “modernism” (e.g., romanticism). The current eco-political crisis demands a philosophy of life (in the objective sense of the genitive) that refuses the supposed relevance of philosophy to life (under the ideology of “lived experience”), the naïve materialism of life as either substance or matter (the object of biochemistry), or the vulgar systematicity of taking as its guiding principle the unity of the “living organism”. We still suffer these errors on account of the tendency to read concepts like the élan vital as a metaphysical principle of (evolutionary) biology with the consequence that life becomes either the movement of differenciation without difference (in Deleuze’s terms) or the abstraction to which we appeal when insisting on what we all have “in common” when we are actually at our most mechanical (when we say, for example, that we all have the same rights because we eat, sleep, and defecate). A critical vitalism requires, like Deleuze and, most recently, Jane Bennett have argued, a conception of difference that is sensitive to the violence of the negative and to a joy that has no need of it. Beneath the vulgar materialism of an illusory “dynamism of force” that struggles for more existence is precisely what Freud had described as the secret will to destruction. What vitalism must reject is both the anti-dialectical posture of a “cycle of life”(predator/prey, life/death) and the militaristic dialectic of production and consumption whose condition and limit is death.

2. Why write? (not for politics): Both French and English criticism have been encumbered by the dogmatic insistence that writing consists in giving material to ideas in language, with the consequence that the writer’s task is literary. The writer whose activity consists of putting words to a page betrays a complicity with at least a certain form of bourgeois idealism that safely ensconces language in words and sentences. Rationality thus consists of discourse and commentary and the critic believes himself effective by the possession of a quick wit, verbal acuity, and the appropriate amount of self-aggrandizing righteousness of character. The writer simply needs to be “committed” to a political task. No such criticism can escape the production of false discourse and the subsequent tendency toward quietism despite any protestations of radical or revolutionary commitment.

(Addendum) 2a. In 1929/30, Benjamin complained that “criticism has to secure its own power by developing a more effective attitude toward the relations of production in the book market. It is well known that far too many books are published. What is worse, a consequence of this is that too few good books appear. And those that have appeared have made too little impact. … The aim here, of course, is not to attack the commercial aspect of publishing … but to appeal to the misguided idealist whose patronage supports dangerous products”. In the eighty years since these lines were written, what Benjamin could not have foreseen was not only the absolute monopolization of textual production by capital but the entirely distinct onto/logical field of digitization and hyper-textualization of new media. As Benjamin points out, what is at stake here is more than simply a critique of the economy of textual production nor even of the dissemination of signifiers that were at one time meaningful within a shared field of intentions. Beyond the degradation of criticism as a mere refinement in taste (subjective judgment) or as political commentary, criticism must fight against the very ideology of discourse that, at one time, it had itself created.

This may seem paradoxical insofar as criticism seems to be precisely that which is excluded from public discourse. Habermas, for example, explicitly exempts “aesthetic criticism” from the modes of discourse available to the rational speaker in the ideal speech situation. Yet this is, of course, merely another symptom of the general collapse of criticism into its current ruins in blogs, syndicated newspaper columns, scholarly commentary, and user comments.

2b. In the comments to an online news article reporting the latest results from experiments performed by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the majority of users aligned themselves with one of two positions: either the scientists involved in this project were guilty of an overwhelming “Anything But God” neurosis or of misplacing their priorities for the benefit of “merely theoretical” questions at the expense of pressing “practical” problems such as disease, hunger, and energy. What should be objectionable to the critic is not the defective logic or rationality of these comments but, rather, the philistinism that results from a posture of being “original” that masquerades as the supposed “right” to have and express an opinion (of course, what stands in need of finesse is not the right itself but its value). The very notion of “originality” has been irreversibly transformed into the anti-dialectical inversion of its authentic sense: we say that to be “original” is to be without precedent and to cast aside the bonds of tradition when being the one who has an origin means recognizing that we are not the first to arrive—that my opinion is our opinion. But this “we” is the abstract universality described by Hegel and Heidegger as the immature thought of thinking that does not yet know itself (or, more precisely, that does not yet know that it does not know, according to Socrates): this is the same adolescent reason (which is, incidentally, encouraged by certain sophistic practices of philosophy that promote so-called “general critical thinking skills”) that presumes to pronounce on any discourse with the “view from nowhere”.