25 August 2006

A Brief Note on the Virtual

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.


Anonymous Greg Seigworth said...

Actually, it is just 'Memories of a Bergsonian' (ATP, p.237)... 'former' Bergsonian is nice projection on your part (ha!)... though yes it is clear that Bergson's pure past is more or less ushered to the stage wings by Deleuze by the time he gets to A Thousand Plateaus ... I have been wondering why you haven't really acknowledged Deleuze's own evolution, post-1968, (w/ or w/o Guattari -- someone I think that you've always been rather uncharitable toward) in conceiving the virtual ... sure, cite D&R but there is plenty in the Leibniz book or What is Philosophy? or even Deleuze's final essay 'The Actual and the Virtual' which go some distance toward addressing what you've been critiquing over the last week or so ... to be drastically reductive (and dreadfully expansive), virtual is a way (though not only this, and not the only way) to talk about time as force (time not only as past or as forgetting/memory, but time out in front too (as well as alongside /on its side) or, that is, becoming as force in a present always passing, a tangle of forces -- nonhuman time-swept spatium -- pressing (interminably?) at each moment or interstice but not necessarily indeterminable and unaccountable, at least not wholly ... anyway, it's late, I am tired, but I know I wouldn't sleep if this kept bugging me (who am I kidding?) ... already forces -- can you feel them, affectively there? -- are marshalling in response, and I don't have time (it has me?) beyond this even briefer note on the virtual ... curious if you've read Keith Ansell Pearson's Virtual book (I remember his few pages on Deleuze, Bergson, and Badiou as insightful but I don't have that book at hand, somewhere in a stack here) and I haven't read Hallward's Deleuze as yet ... something moves, a near imperceptible impulse ... real without being present etc etc

August 25, 2006 10:03 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Hi Greg, Good catch on my "slip of the keyboard"! Wish fullfillment indeed! You're right I've never been very fair to the later work with Guattari. On the more rational side of the spectrum, I'm sure part of this has to do with my commitment to Lacan and deep reservations I have about their critique of psychoanalysis. For a few years I felt confident I could reconcile schizoanalysis with psychoanalysis (D&G's remarks about Lacan are almost entirely possible throughout AO, and they tend only to criticize his followers), however, with the releast of _Two Regimes of Madness_ I'm much less confident that such a reconciliation is possible.

On the completely irrational side, I think I've always blamed D&G for the meltdown of the Spoon Collective. For a few years there we had a thriving list, producing outstanding discussions and terrific scholarly work. Then the imitators of "Professor Challenger" and Artaud came along and it all went down hill. Those who continued wondering what D&G might actually be claiming and arguing we're branded as repressive and full of ressentiment, and mocked. I think I've tended to feel that D&G's celebration of Schreber and Artaud produced this imititive style and bad poetry, and that I've never quite been able to forgive them for it. As a result, every time I read their collaborative work I break out in hives. I can usually stomach WiP and ATP, but I can hardly tolerate AO at all. You're right, I need to sit down, put this aside, and chart their evolution in a more careful fashion.

The more fundamental question lies in the issue of whether the actual is purely determined by the virtual or whether the actual feeds back into the virtual. I've read Pearson's book on the virtual, but can't help but feel he's too indebted to Bergson.

Do you genuinely believe Deleuze departs from conceiving the virtual as the pure past? Cinema 2 suggests otherwise. On the other hand, the final chapter of WiP, perhaps suggests that Deleuze has finally freed himself of Bergsonian contamination. Any reader of Bergson's _Matter and Memory_ cannot help but be struck by D&G's evocation of brain in WiP. I have to go back and carefully read this chapter, but evocation of the brain in this way comes as such a surprise because Bergson so painstakingly tries to demonstrate that memory isn't stored in the brain; indeed, that memory isn't "stored" at all, but is a genuine ontological dimension.

August 26, 2006 7:27 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Oh I forgot to add... It's so nice to see familiar faces. I hope all is well with you!

August 26, 2006 7:29 AM  
Anonymous bobo:) said...

hi Levi,

i haven't read delanda, or really any secondary literature on deleuze for that matter, so i can't really comment on the axe you're grinding (probably quite rightly) against those who like to 'translate' his work into chaos theory etc. also i won't have access to my copy of D&R until about a week from now, so i can't dig up exact textual references at the moment. my reasons for calling the virtual a modal category come from the fact (i'm going from memory here) that deleuze defines the virtual in contrast to and as a substitutive alternative to the more traditional modal category of possibility. to the conventional oppositional pair possibility/actuality, deleuze substitutes virtuality/actuality. as i said in my last post, this move responds to the problem of essentialism: the category of the virtual allows deleuze to escape brute material determinism while also allowing him to avoid essentialism (the kind of leibnizian essentialism implied by possible-being).

i'm not sure whether i would commit to the category of the virtual myself as opposed to the traditional categories of necessity, possibility, contingency and impossibility. my disagreement is with those who would go so far as to reject modality altogether. such a rejection does imply strict determinism, since the property 'to be able to be otherwise' (which constitutes the negation of strict determinism) is the very definition of possibility. it's not at all clear from D&R what the semantics of a logic of the virtual would be; the traditional modal categories, at least, have kripke's work to back them up. a lot of work would have to done on deleuze's ontology, i think, in order to make it completely coherent. it would certainly be helpful, for one thing, to have maimon's texts available in english to understand the leibnizian bits better and deleuze's use of calculus to formalize the virtual in chapter 4 of D&R.

anyways, i'm rambling, and i have to pee; ciao.

August 26, 2006 2:56 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Hi Bobo, I see what you're arguing now. Insofar as the category of the virtual replaces that of the possible, it has modal connotations. It sounds to me that you're treating the term "actual" as a synonym for determinism. I would argue that this presupposes a particular conception of the actual; for instance, one in which the elements of the actual have the status of eternal atoms and simply reconfigure themselves from moment to moment. You'll note that the characterization of the actual I've been attempting to develop is one where elements are perpetually being constituted or where no substance is presupposed.

I take it that Deleuze's intuition is that we can't explain creation on the basis of [atomistic] actuality alone as such actuality is governed strictly by causal relations. By contrast, if we add the dimension of memory then it's possible to get something more than what the actual puts in (under this conception of the actual). I wonder, however, whether we cannot get to the same point employing memory-systems or symbolic systems. For instance, in introducing a void into the organism, the symbolic also creates a point of separation within causal interactions. That is, any system capable of preserving information is no longer strictly determined as the information itself becomes a variable in the causal interactions. The case is similar with objet a. It is because I relate to objet a that I'm not strictly determined by my environmental relations. Objet a, as it were, perpetually puts me out of step with the world about me. Yet certainly we don't need the category of the virtual to explain objet a, do we?

I share your concerns about creativity and freedom, and am just raising the question of whether Deleuze's ontology is the only way to do them justice.

August 26, 2006 3:19 PM  
Anonymous greg seigworth said...

'seeing familiar faces' -- ha! hearing familiar voices more like (reading familiar voices), and I have always admired yours no matter its name (and despite whatever the bug you've given me recently)... memory? kalapsyche, paul, levi, sinthome, ... Spoon was a moment but I don't really miss it (memory I hate you) ... not unlike Walter Benjamin, Deleuze found (I think) certain lovely uptakes from Proust & memory as preferable to 'pure' Bergson ... an early watershed moment for me, back around 1991-92, was footnote #44 to Massumi's User's Guide (which also unfortunately resonates, in part, with certain DeLanda mischief, where I agree with you). My copy of the book, in fact, falls open to the last part of this footnote (p.170)... I'd quote it but I promised to fix supper and I am ten minutes late getting started; I would be curious to know if this 'more Blanchotian position' sits with you any better; 'virtual is a space of pure exteriority ... every point in it is adjacent to every point in the actual world, regardless of whether those points are adjacent to each other (otherwise some actual points would separate the virtual from other actual points, and the virtual would be outside their outside -- in other words relative to it and mediated by it)' ... some much for not quoting, but then also take a look again at Deleuze's 'the actual and the virtual' essay, and how it carefully lays out this topography/these relations (where does its translation appear? 2nd ed of Dialogues? I forget. Karen Ocana -- sigh -- translated it for me years ago as a gift, as I don't read in French, and now I find myself briefly missing KO, though not the Spoons list, nope)... also, perhaps foremost: the relation of affect to the virtual is, of course, key (and I imagine a terrible wiggle for any Lacanian, and no doubt feeds into a certain Guattari hang-up, eh?)...

August 26, 2006 4:38 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Greg, Could you say a bit more as to why affect would be a hangup for any Lacanian? These days I'm less concerned with preserving every aspect of Deleuze's ontology, than with pinning down what he was trying to think about and going forward from there.

August 29, 2006 6:19 AM  

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