21 August 2006

Deleuze's Two Conceptions of the Virtual

In response to Kushakov's defense of Deleuze's category of the virtual, I would like to clarify both what I reject in Deleuze's account of the virtual and what I wish to preserve in the category of the virtual. At the outset, I should remark that I find Kushakov's discussion of the virtual unrecognizable, and am certainly unable to agree with his claim that "the virtual [is] that which is simultaneously outside the category of being - that which cannot be brought into either infinite set - and upon which the possibility of being depends." The problem is that this violates both the univocity and immanence claims of Deleuze's ontology. Moreover, if we follow Deleuze's equation of the virtual with Bergsonian memory as elaborated in Bergsonism, it is the virtual that truly is. As Deleuze there puts it,
We have...confused Being with being-present. Nevertheless, the present is not; rather, it is pure becoming, always outside itself. It is not; but it acts. Its proper element is not being but the active or useful. The past, on the other hand, has ceased to act or be useful. But it has not ceased to be. Useless and inactive, impassive, it IS, in the full sense of the word: it is identical with being in itself. (Bergsonism, 55)
Employing Deleuze's sorting of time as developed in The Logic of Sense, it is thus not the case that the actual is sorted in two ways. Rather, the actual corresponds to chronos or the pure present which is not, and the virtual corresponds to aion or that which divides time into past and future. Deleuze had already developed this sorting of time when discussing the second and third syntheses of repetition (pure past and eternal return) as the dimension of the virtual. For instance, Deleuze's discussion of Oedipus and Hamlet closely mirrors his discussion of aion in the 23rd series of The Logic of Sense. In any case, Deleuze-Bergson's thesis is that this pure past is the condition for actualization. Or, put differently, aion is the condition of chronos. Or, yet again, the virtual is the condition of the actual. What I object to in Deleuze is thus two-fold: On the one hand, I reject his thesis about the inactivity or impassivity of the virtual (this is the driving point of Hallward's entire critique which I discuss here). On the other, I reject Deleuze's thesis that there is something like an ontological memory or pure past, detached from any subjects, that inheres in all being, in favor of a materialist position that sees the present as perpetually reproducing itself or rather which discerns being as composed entirely of actuality. This, of course, is a thesis that I am obligated to work out and develop.

While I reject Deleuze's Bergsonian conception of the virtual in terms of an impassive, pure past where the entirety of the past co-exists both with itself and with the present, I do, nonetheless, believe that there is a virtuous conception of the virtual that responds to a very real problem. Deleuze taught that to understand a philosophy or a concept, we must seek to understand the problem to which it responds. It was this, primarily (and not buggary), that defined his "method" of reading philosophy. For Deleuze the question was always what unspoken problem animates this particular constellation of concepts, this particular configuration of thought? Similarly, we can ask what particular problem motivates Deleuze's conceptualization of the virtual? To what problem does it respond? In order to answer this question a close reading of Difference and Repetition is required, and in particular chapters four and five. Indeed, I would say that the measure of any reading of Deleuze is found in what it has to say about chapters four and five of Difference and Repetition, and whether it attempts to reduce all of Deleuze to the first synthesis of repetition or habitus (a tendency so common in the secondary literature as to cause one to throw one's hands up in despair, shaking one's head in wonder at the fact that readers ignore Deleuze's comments as to how habitus underlies the image of thought and the model of recognition).

I cannot provide such a reading here, but I will say that Deleuze's account of the virtual is designed to account for the manner in which a discrete entity or being (an actuality) is the product or effect of a structure or system, whether this system be a social system, a lingustic system, a kinship system, a biological system, an ecosystem, etc., etc. Yes, yes, I know Deleuze ultimately comes to reject structuralism and level trenchant critiques against a number of structuralist thinkers. However, this was not always the case for Deleuze (cf. his early essay "How Do We Recognize Structuralism?" in Desert Island and Other Texts, where you will be treated to a neat summary of many of the themes of Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense), who recognized early the ontological challenges posed by structuralist thought. It was precisely his attempt to produce a philosophy proper to structuralism that eventually allowed him to break with structuralism, moving in a direction closer to chaos and complexity theory. Although it is seldom discussed, the emergence of structuralism in the social sciences also gave rise to new ontological questions that could no longer be summed up in a metaphysics where the principle kinds of things that are consist of only subjects and objects. Social structures are not in any one person's mind, nor are they objects that we can observe in the world around us. Rather, they are some strange third thing that is neither subject nor object. And indeed, if we take Althusser's claims about interpellation seriously (while adding bells and whistles), both subjects and objects are dependent on these structures. Setting aside Deleuze's later critique of structuralism (his work during the sixties is staunchly structuralist), it can be said that Deleuze set out to theorize these structures.

Take the example of language. We say that langue is the condition of parole. Without language there is no speech. Thus, when I say to a friend "please leave me alone", this enunciation isn't possible with a prior shared system of language. There is a condition upon which this enunciation depends and that condition is language. Yet where is language? If language is as Saussure describes it (or as described by the linguist Labov, whom Deleuze and Guattari will come to endorse in A Thousand Plateaus), then language qua language is something that can't be heard (as it's composed of pure differences or phonemes such as b/p), it can't be seen, it can't be touched, it can't be found in any particular object in the way that we might discern a quality such as red belonging to a ball. Moreover, language has the strange quality of being discontinuous in time. For instance, the entire world could cease to speak, yet the languages of the world would not cease to be. How is this possible? Now I only offer this as an example of how to conceive the problem Deleuze is responding to, and ask irate desiring-machines not to give me a lecture on how Deleuze and Guattari throw Saussure to the flames in their essay "The Postulates of Linguistics". Yes, yes, I'm familiar with all of this, but that's not the point. The point to focus on is the question of how a discrete being can nonetheless have a relational structure. (Incidentally, it will be noted that conservativism is almost invariably characterized by an inability to discern relations or instances of a relation in actual phenomena, treating discrete actuality as if it were all that is and ignoring the manner in which actualities embody systematicity and belong to broader organizational patterns). How is it possible for something to be a condition of beings (the beings in this instance consisting of speech-events), while not being discernible or measurable, or being located in any one particular person's mind (an issue that becomes even more remarkable when we're no longer dealing with social phenomena, but biological entities, weather patterns, ecosystems, etc)?

It is precisely these ontological problems that Deleuze seeks to articulate with his account of the virtual. That is, how are we simultaneously able to think the continuous and the discontinuous together? The key passage occurs in chapter four of Difference and Repetition, "Ideas and the Synthesis of Difference":
We opposed the virtual and the real: although it could not have been more precise before now, this terminology must be corrected. The virtual is opposed not to the real but to the actual. The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual. Exactly what Proust said of states of resonance must be said of the virtual: 'Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract'; and symbolic without being fictional. Indeed, the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the object-- as thought the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it plunged as though into an objective dimension. Accounts of the differential calculus often liken the differential to a 'portion of the difference'. Or, following Lagrange's method, the question is asked which part of the mathematical object presents the relation in question and must be considered derived. The reality of the virtual consists in differential elements and relations along with the singular points which correspond to them. The reality of the virtual is structure. We must avoid giving the elements and relations which form a structure an actuality which they do not have, and withdrawing from them a reality which they have. We have seen that a double process of reciprocal determination and complete determination defined that reality: far from being determined, the virtual is completely determined. When it is claimed that works of art are immersed in a virtuality, what is being invoked is not some confused determination but the completely determined structure formed by its genetic differential elements, its 'virtual' or 'embryonic' elements. The elements, varieties of relations and singular points coexist in the work or the object, in the virtual part of the work or object, without it being possible to designate a point of view privileged over others, a centre which would unify the other centres. How, then, can we speak simultaneously of both complete determination and only a part of the object? The determination must be a complete determination of the object, yet form a part of it. Following suggestions made by Descartes in his Replies to Arnaud, we must carefully distinguish the object in so far as it is complete and the object insofar as it is whole. What is complete is only the ideal part of the object, which participates with other parts of objects in the Idea (other relations, other singular points), but never constitutes an integral whole as such. What the complete determination lacks is the whole set of relations belonging to actual existence. An object may be ens, or rather (non)ens omni modo determinatum, without being entirely determined or actually existing. (DR, 208-9)
The virtual is thus that half of the object that presides over its being or actuality. What the virtual explains is how a discrete ("unconnected") actuality, entity, or being, can nonetheless belong to one and the same relational structure or system. Thus, for instance, my remark to my friend-- "leave me alone" --is a discrete actuality, a unique speech-event isolated from other speech-events, but belongs to the system of the English language. Similarly, the specific color of my eyes are discrete in the order of being or distinct from other entities (other parts of my own body, other human bodies, animal bodies, etc), but nonetheless are actualizations of my genetic structure. Deleuze's account of (indi)different/ciation in chapters four and five of Difference and Repetition is thus designed to account for how we move from this virtual domain of ideal relations and singularities characterizing a system, to unique actualized entities. Moreover, we can see why Deleuze would find Bergson's account of the pure past attractive in developing an ontology of structures and systems as they relate to discrete actualities, insofar as the relations composing a system or structure are simultaneous with one another, yet time experienced at the level of actuality is experienced as perpetually passing. The pure past is one way to explain how organization, system, structure can persist in time despite the fact that actualities are constantly moving about and reorganizing themselves.

I take it that Deleuze's account of the virtual as structure or system is the "virtuous" conception of the virtual, and the one that has been so quickly latched on to by thinkers such as Negri and Hardt. That is, I take it that describing the virtual as the "relational side" of the object is a productive idea. Nonetheless, I am uncomfortable with Deleuze's proposal of an impassive ontological memory or pure past that insists in all actuality. I am also bothered by Deleuze's claim that the actual contributes nothing to the virtual, but rather that all actualization moves from the virtual to the actual. This seems to leave little hope for any sort of concrete change produced at the level of actuality, insofar as we have a pure past, a past that has never been present, overdetermining all actualities without the actualities themselves contributing anything to being. It seems to me that this is the Deleuze, the Deleuze of the ontology of the pure past, that most Deleuzians themselves ignore, treating Deleuze instead as a sort of complexity theorist.

What if, however, we could account for the relational dimension of beings coupled with their discreteness without having to evoke something like a pure past? What if we could account for this relational dimension of all discrete entities sheerly in terms of actuality? In Social Systems, Luhmann has proposed that systems are entirely composed of events that cease to exist the moment they occur. That is, there is no substance in which systems inhere. As a result, the challenge of every system consists in the question of how it is able to perpetually reproduce itself from moment to moment. What are those events that generate connectivity to other events? Is there a way of conceiving being such that being reproduces itself at every moment in its relational organization, allowing us to dispense with strange ontologies that would require us to claim that the past IS? Could not organization, systematicity, be seen as an emergent property of elements, rather than as the result of another dimension called the virtual?


Anonymous Mark Crosby said...

Hi Levi, en(de)light(en)ed to have your blog to blaze these trails! This seems to be the heart of your argument against Deleuze: "Nonetheless, I am uncomfortable with Deleuze's proposal of an impassive ontological memory or pure past that insists in all actuality. I am also bothered by Deleuze's claim that the actual contributes nothing to the virtual, but rather that all actualization moves from the virtual to the actual". But, with the first concern, Deleuze seems to move beyond this in his, uh, post-structuralist work? Your second concern is more on target because Deleuze seems to insist on this to the end (even unto "Pure Immanence" ;)

I've found the work of George Santayana to be most helpful in explicating this valorization of the virtual. Take a look at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16712/16712-h/16712-h.htm, _Some Turns in Modern Philosophy_ (1933) where Santayana discusses "Locke and the Frontiers of Common Sense" (helpful for 'buggering' Deleuze ;) "A Long Way Round to Nirvana" (helpful for buggering Zizek ;) and "The Prestige of the Infinite" (helpful for buggering Badiou ;) Especially this, in the "Supplementary Notes" to the first essay: "I leave it for the reader's reflection to decide whether we should call such cohabitation of mind with body interaction, or not rather sympathetic concomitance, self-annotation, and a partial prophetic awakening to a life which we are leading automatically".

Deleuze was a great Trickster, you know (believing in the "power of falsity" ;) a sort of self-referential loop (like your graphic infundibulum for "Badiou's Ontology" ;) Dare we call it teleology in this denatured day & age? (See Victoria Alexander's "Hopeful Monsters: Literary Teleology & Emergence" at http://www.dactyl.org/directors/vna/hopefulmonsters.htm where "To regard these 'universal' characteristics or laws as teleological is to see them as being immanent in the systems, NOT pre-existing them" ;)

The post-structuralist Deleuze always takes a trichotomic approach to a logic of relations, no matter how much he may conceal this with a Marx Brothers' sleight-of-hand: On the one hand, on the other hand, meanwhile.. See CINEMA 1, p.199: "The three brothers are distributed in such a way that Harpo & Chico are most often grouped together, Groucho for his part looming up in order to enter into a kind of alliance with the two others. Caught in an indissoluble group of three. Harpo is the one, the representative of celestial affects, but also already of infernal impulses ... Chico is two: it is he who takes on action, the initiative ... Finally, Groucho is the three, the man of interpretations, of symbolic acts and abstract relations. Nevertheless each of the three equally belongs to the thirdness that they make up together".

It's not just a "pure past", as you recognize; rather, "aion ... divides time into past and future"; so, there is this 'secret' transcendental teleology.. Thus, 1) "pure past"; 2) actuality, or what Brian Massumi calls "Amodal Suspension" (AKA "affective transductions" - search for this online article, to which I've lost the link :) "The interval's offness makes a 3-some: 2 series of intensities, with itself between"; but, 3) "the basic articulation of the signal". In an impeccable gesture of self-buggery, Massumi adds: "But three's a crowd. Each of the variations punctuated by an off state is multiple, consisting of a population of intensities".

And so, the "complete determination" Deleuze painted in his 1968 thesis is taken from behind, in the end, by a pure act of self-buggary (SIC ;) Can I cite from a lost secret channel of the Odyssey with Ulysses? LRB wrote, Fri Sep 17 2004 711pm, Re: [DeleuzeandGuattari] Re: Deleuze Immanence: "there's a genesis of intelligibility within the sensible itself such that the sensible is no longer a chaos requiring supplementation to produce order, and because the subject is no longer defined by receptivity (finitude, limitation) but is something that is co-posited along with the world". YOU found this in Deleuze.. Keep up the good work - Mark!

August 24, 2006 9:27 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Hi Mark, Terrific to see you! Has your latest book been released yet?

Thanks for all the references!

I'm having a little trouble following this remark: "But, with the first concern, Deleuze seems to move beyond this in his, uh, post-structuralist work?" Would I be correct in assuming that you're referring to the logic of relations that Deleuze and Guattari develop in ATP? Perhaps there's a way of reading later Deleuze where the distinction between the virtual and the actual progressively disappears, and we instead get interrelating processes where events perpetually reproduce certain pattered relations or organizations. The monkey-wrench in this thesis is that the dimension of virtuality still figures heavily in the cinema books, written a few years after ATP.

Forgetting all the silliness about the pure past (can you tell I'm feeling grump these days?), I have no objections to virtuality if it simply signifies relation and potentiality.

August 25, 2006 2:28 AM  
Anonymous Mark Crosby said...

My latest book - you've got to be kidding! My day job is in an alternate universe.. A blog someday, maybe!

All I was saying in my statement you respond to is that the later Deleuze seems to no longer emphasize 'pure past'. I was not claiming that the distinction between actual and virtual disappears. I WAS trying to suggest that perhaps rather than an actual / virtual dichotomy there might be a trichotomy of past, actual, and future..

Anyway, thanks for the recent link to Thoburn's _Deleuze, Marx and Politics_. Along these lines I've been reading a lot of Ranciere lately. Maybe one of these days you'll write something about him? (Or, how about a comparison of Badiou and Peirce ?)

Got to go: being sucked into the black hole of that alternative universe I mentioned (no "refusal of work" for me, I'm afraid ;)

August 25, 2006 10:46 AM  
Blogger kvond said...

LS: " Nonetheless, I am uncomfortable with Deleuze's proposal of an impassive ontological memory or pure past that insists in all actuality. I am also bothered by Deleuze's claim that the actual contributes nothing to the virtual, but rather that all actualization moves from the virtual to the actual. This seems to leave little hope for any sort of concrete change produced at the level of actuality, insofar as we have a pure past, a past that has never been present, overdetermining all actualities without the actualities themselves contributing anything to being. It seems to me that this is the Deleuze, the Deleuze of the ontology of the pure past, that most Deleuzians themselves ignore, treating Deleuze instead as a sort of complexity theorist."

Kvond: Interesting points. I am wondering, now that you recently have been teaching Spinoza with pleasure, if you still have this resistence to these aspects of Deleuzean virtual. What if we made a similar point about Spinoza, where virtual was Substance, and actual modal expression (roughly)? Would have the same problem with Spinoza for the same reasons?

November 24, 2008 6:32 PM  

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