25 May 2006

Difference and the Production of Identity

The philosophies of difference-- we might even refer to them as an "episteme" in Foucault's sense --all share the common conclusion that where difference is first as the ground of being identity must be conceived as a product, result, or effect. Indeed, rather than thinking the ontology of difference negatively as aiming at overturning ontotheology, the task or problem of an ontology of difference could be thought affirmatively as the question of how the avatars of identity are produced. As de Beistegui has noted in his brilliant Truth and Genesis: Philosophy as Differential Ontology (in our view the finest study of Deleuze apart from Delanda's Intensive Science & Virtual Philosophy and Badiou's Deleuze: The Clamor of Being), differential ontology announces the demise of the distinction between substance and accidents, such that entity becomes its accidents. In order to see just what differential ontology is getting at with this move, one need only consult Descartes' famous analysis of the wax in the second meditation. There Descartes writes:

"Let us now accordingly consider the objects that are commonly thought to be [the most easily, and likewise] the most distinctly known, viz, the bodies we touch and see; not, indeed, bodies in general, for these general notions are usually somewhat more confused, but one body in particular. Take, for example, this piece of wax; it is quite fresh, having been but recently taken from the beehive; it has not yet lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it still retains somewhat of the odor of the flowers from which it was gathered; its color, figure, size, are apparent ( to the sight ); it is hard, cold, easily handled; and sounds when struck upon with the finger. In fine, all that contributes to make a body as distinctly known as possible, is found in the one before us. But, while I am speaking, let it be placed near the fire--what remained of the taste exhales, the smell evaporates, the color changes, its figure is destroyed, its size increases, it becomes liquid, it grows hot, it can hardly be handled, and, although struck upon, it emits no sound. Does the same wax still remain after this change ? It must be admitted that it does remain; no one doubts it, or judges otherwise. What, then, was it I knew with so much distinctness in the piece of wax? Assuredly, it could be nothing of all that I observed by means of the senses, since all the things that fell under taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing are changed, and yet the same wax remains" (Meditations, 2, paragraph 11).

In this connection Descartes is seeking to demonstrate that we know our own existence as cogito with greater certainty than we know the existence of external objects. Descartes enlists the discussion of wax with the aim of showing that we are only capable of knowing the identity of the wax through change through an act of intellection that grasps the identity of the wax as substance beneath its changing accidents. This premise of an identical substance throughout change was a necessary premise of scientific thought. Thus, for instance, the physics of levers and pulleys is dependent on the notion that regardless of whether the horse pulls the heavy object directly through the use of a harness or indirectly through a system of pulleys, the same amount of work is done in both instances. Similarly, without the premise of substance I am unable to conceive of chemical change, which presupposes an identity on both sides of an equation. From these examples it can be seen that the premise of the ontological primordiality of substance is not simply an affair of the State-- of preferring identity to difference --but also goes straight to the heart of our scientific practice as well. The reason Descartes' example is so illuminating is that it cuts right to the heart of the matter in pointing out that while we presuppose an identity of substance throughout change, we only encounter the changing accidents or qualities of a substance and never directly the substance itself. The problem thus seems to be that we require the premise of this identity for our equations and scientific practice to be possible, yet we are unable to epistemically see how substance as that which endures beneath change can cognitively be grasped.

Instances of the primacy of substance throughout the history of philosophy could be multiplied in a variety of different contexts. Thus Plato, for instance, concedes that the world of appearances, the physico-sensible world in which we live, is characterized by nothing but accidents and differences without enduring identities, but nonetheless insists on the primacy of substance in terms of the eternal forms. Aristotle's formal cause and primary substances serve this role with regard to entities. Throughout medieval thought this role is served by essences. And Leibniz goes so far in his desire to maintain the primacy of identity that he transforms each thing, each entity, into an infinite analytic proposition that already virtually expresses the entirety of its predicates coiled inward upon itself. Nonetheless, the premise of substance has continuously come to grief in the history of philosophy. If this is so, then it is for two reasons:

1) First, and less importantly in my view, an epistemic reason: As Locke and Hume were quick to point out, we only encounter the accidents and qualities of beings (what Hume refers to as "sensations"), so what is it that warrants us in concluding that these predicates are supported by a self-identical substance that maintains its identity across time? Hegel would later present a more interesting variant of this problem in the chapters on "Perception" and "Understanding" in the Phenomenology of Spirit and in his discussion of existence and appearance in The Science of Logic. Similar problems emerge in Husserl's later works such as Experience and Judgment and Analyses Concerning Active and Passive Synthesis, where the question becomes one of how a multiplicity can be intended as a unity when we only ever encounter it through its profiles. Whatever the case may be, the unity, the identity of the object, has always been a tremendous problem from the standpoint of knowledge. Here the discussions of Hegel and Husserl already pass from mere epistemic concerns, to more profound ontological concerns.

2) Second, and our view more importantly, a metaphysical reason: Throughout the history of philosophy the substance of a being has all too often been conceived in terms of the essence of the object. But an object is not simply its essence, it is also its existence. The existence of an object, its singularity, is not simply its accidents for the object remains the same object even when its accidents change. I, for instance, remain who I am even when my hair turns grey. Yet I am not my essence either, for I am something in addition to being human or any of the abstract categories that might be attributed to me. What, then, is it that individuates me as this singular being here? This problem will vex the scholastic philosophers-- no doubt because they must preserve the singular irreplacability of the soul --and will be taken up again by Deleuze.

It is Hume and Kant who first point the way towards thinking identity as a product or effect rather than an ultimate ground. In the case of Hume, we have the flowing duration of impressions perpetually differing in themselves and from one another being synthesized according to the three laws of association. Here entity becomes the result of habit or those co-agulations of impressions in relation to memory that repeat. Kant presents a more refined account of the manner in which cognition "produces its own elements" or, as Badiou would say, "counts-as-one" in the axioms of intuition, anticipations of perception, and the first analogy. However, in relation to the second problem mentioned above, the problem remains the same. There the question was not that of what individuates a being for us, but rather what individuates a being for itself? Both Hume and Kant continue to relativize the individual to another being and are therefore incapable of conceiving it for itself. This is a move that will often be repeated in 20th century thought. Thus, for instance, social constructivists will speak of how entities are individuated for society. Luhmann or Maturana and Varela will talk of how beings are individuated for systems. Foucault will speak of how beings are individuated for epistemes and power-structures. Derrida, perhaps, will speak of how beings are individuated for language, and so on. It could be that we can never depart from the domain of "epistemology", that questions of being must always be posed relative to some other being, but we would like to see whether being can be thought in and for itself (the ontologies of Whitehead, the later Heidegger, Deleuze, and Badiou suggest just such a possibility).

Second, while Hume and Kant both manage to think the being of beings as products of difference, rather than identity, they still posit identity at the level of the mind thinking these beings. In the case of Kant this identity is seen with regard to the transcendental unity of apperception. Hume fares better in this regard in that he is able to conceive identity as a product of associations forming a pattern over time, yet there is still the implicit assumption of identity in the form of the mind in which these associations are effected. To our thinking the task of thinking identity as a principle become must extend all the way to the subject itself such that being precedes the subject, not the reverse. In my view, no one has gone further than Lacan in this regard.

Like many events in thought, we can "fractally" discern the thesis that identity is a product in a variety of different domains.

  • Physics: As de Beistegui points out, science has foresaken the notion that there are ultimate units of matter and increasingly sees matter as composed of energetic patterns.
  • Biology: The great Darwinian revolution was to overturn the primacy of forms over individuals so as to see species as effects of populations or individual difference. Indeed, it could be that we have yet to catch up with Darwin, that we still speak poorly in speaking of species.
  • The New Science: The new sciences of complexity theory, systems theory, chaos theory, and even structuralism seem to have emerged precisely to thematize differential and dynamic systems that constitute their own elements and which only know processual identity or unity across time.
  • Psychology and Neurology: Freud demonstrated that identity is a product of identification and that thought pertains to non-linear processes that exceed the intentionality of a subject. Lacan later demonstrated the manner in which the subject is produced as an effect of the signifier and the differential of objet a. Neurology indicates the manner in which thought is the result of all sorts of microprocesses without unified center or "I".
  • Sociology: Figures such as Althusser, Foucault, Bourdeau, and Luhmann have all shown how the units composing society are constituted by society as a system and do not pre-exist the system that counts-them-as-one.
  • Politics: Increasingly we've witnessed the demise of the nation-state and the accompanying idea of racial identity, to be replaced by temporary coalitians, multiplicities, and ever-changing alliances.
  • Art: Increasingly we've seen the fragmentation of the art object in favor of "open texts", as, for instance, the works of Joyce or Pynchon.
My question then is that of how unity can be produced out of difference. It may be that there is no univocal answer to this question, and it may very well be the wrong question, a question still too tied to the tradition of substance based ontology. Nonetheless, it seems that no thinkers have gone further in ontologically thinking this question than Deleuze and Badiou.

Badiou manages to express the question most clearly:

  • By clearly expressing the manner in which the whole is not through his engagement with set theory (a statement worthy of any Lacanian aphorism).
  • By clearly expressing the manner in which, as a consequence, everything is a situation or local.
  • By clearly expressing the consequence that all identity is a product, effect, or result.
Nonetheless, Badiou's clarity suffers from abstraction. As Hallward points out, it is very difficult to see how Badiou (in his work preceding Logiques des mondes which I have not yet brought myself to read) can properly attend to relation. Do we not need some account of qualitative difference and relation from Badiou's work? Can we see how such an account can emerge from his infinite multiplicities-without-one? Moreover, what is it that presides over the operation of the "count-as-one"? It is here that Deleuze excells in his account of intensity, multiplicity, singularity, actualization, and individuation. Yet if we follow Deleuze in his account, how are we able to maintain Badiou's remarkable theory of the event and the truth-procedures that follow from it? Are we not then commited to a gradualist and conservative notion of change?

Two articles worth reading on identity as a process:




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