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Todd May, "The Ontology and Politics of Gilles Deleuze"

"The Ontology and Politics of Gilles Deleuze"

Todd May


Alain Badiou, Deleuze: The Clamor of Being (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000 [orig. pub. 1997]).

Paul Patton, Deleuze and the Political (New York, Routledge, 2000).

John Rajchman, The Deleuze Connections (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000).

In the small but growing circle of Deleuze scholars on this side of the Atlantic, there has been a notable shift in recent years regarding the aspects of Deleuze's thought that receive emphasis. Early on, with the publication and subsequent translation of (and the stir in France about) Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze was treated here as primarily a political philosopher in the Nietzschean mold. Anti-Oedipus, co-authored with Felix Guattari, was (justly) taken to be political theory that was influenced by the events of May '68 in France, and was also (not quite so justly) taken to be emblematic of the entirety of Deleuze's thought.
In recent years, however, there has been a shift from the study of his political views toward his ontological ones, and with that shift has come a corresponding shift in attention from the later works, many of them co-authored with Guattari, toward the earlier ones. Deleuze's central work Difference and Repetition, long neglected here, appeared in translation by Paul Patton (one of the authors under review here) in 1994, and, alongside other earlier works, allows English speakers a full range of study of all of Deleuze's major early works. Combined with the focus placed on Deleuze's ontology by Constantin Boundas, his most significant promoter in North America, scholars of Deleuze's thought are now as likely to read the collaborative works with Felix Guattari through the eyes of Deleuze's earlier studies as the other way around.It is less surprising, then, than it once would have been that of the three books under review here -- all of them major contributions to Deleuze studies -- two of them focus largely on Deleuze's ontology. Alain Badiou's Deleuze: The Clamor of Being (originally published in French in 1997) and John Rajchman's The Deleuze Connections both approach his thought by means of his ontology. Paul Patton's Deleuze and the Political, by contrast, concerns itself mostly with Deleuze's later work. However, that book also has significant chapters on Deleuze's ontology.

When I use the term "ontology" in reference to Deleuze's work, I want to be a bit cautious. Whether or not Deleuze "has" an ontology, or has an epistemic commitment to any of his ontological posits, is a source of debate among Deleuze scholars. John Rajchman, for instance, comments that Deleuze's thought "puts experimentation before ontology, 'And' before 'Is.'" (p. 6) In invoking the term, then, I mean only to refer to the ontological concepts that find their way into Deleuze's work, and not necessarily to any overarching ontological structure that may or may not lie there.

Badiou's text is perhaps the most well known and most controversial of the three. Badiou, a formidable ontologist in his own right, argues that Deleuze's project, in contrast to most of the interpretations given to it, is to articulate a thinking rooted in not multiplicity but rather in univocity. "Deleuze's fundamental problem," he writes, "is most certainly not to liberate the multiple but to submit thinking to a renewed concept of the One." (p. 11) In arguing for this claim, Badiou places himself squarely in context of Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense. I would like to spend a moment rehearsing Badiou's interpretation and criticism of Deleuze before turning to the alternatives provided by Rajchman and Patton.

According to Badiou, there are three central principles governing Deleuze's thought:

"1. This philosophy is organized around a metaphysics of the One

2. It proposes an ethics of thought that requires dispossession and asceticism.

3. It is systematic and abstract." (p. 17)

Of these three, it is the first one that founds the other two and thus receives the bulk of his attention.

In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze traces a historical lineage that begins with Duns Scotus and runs through Spinoza to Nietzsche that takes Being to be univocal. This lineage holds that Being is said in one and the same sense about all things of which it is said. Deleuze endorses this view, in large part because, in Nietzschean fashion, it precludes the resort to some sort of transcendent by which this world would be judged. From the beginning of his work Deleuze rejects the intervention of any sort of transcendent into philosophy, and the univocity of Being is in keeping with that rejection.

Badiou notes that if Deleuze takes this path, one of the hurdles he has to clear is that the world appears as a multiplicity. How can Being be univocal and yet seem to be multifarious. In Badiou's view, Deleuze's strategy is to hold that Being is to be conceptually approached from two different angles, one from the side of univocity and the other from the side of multiplicity. It is the first side that Deleuze privileges. As Badiou puts it, "The price one must pay for inflexibly maintaining the thesis of univocity is clear...ultimately, this multiple can only be that of the order of simulacra." (p. 26)

In itself, that position is not problematic. Where it does develop difficulties, however, is that this dual angle of vision cannot be maintained without resort to transcendence, which is what Deleuze wants to avoid in the first place by invoking the univocity of Being. For instance, in Deleuze's distinction between the virtual univocity of Being and its actualization in the multiplicity of things, the virtual cleaves from the actual and becomes transcendent: "Deleuze's virtual ground remains for me a transcendence." (p. 46) Although Deleuze tries to maintain immanence by invoking the idea of the virtual and the actual as distinct but indiscernible, this move, in Badiou's eyes, undercuts the possibility of the virtual serving as a univocal ground of Being.

It would take a much longer essay to assess the charge that Badiou has leveled against Deleuze. Let me only suggest here that I believe Badiou is right in saying that transcendence is a threat to Deleuze's thought, but it is not at all clear that it is unavoidable. When Deleuze claims in Difference and Repetition that Being is difference in itself and in Bergsonism that Bergson's ontological past is pure difference in kind, he is opening up the possibility of a virtuality that is as multiplicitous as the actualities that emerge from it. In focusing on the univocity of Deleuze's concept of Being, then, Badiou may have conflated univocity with identity, a move that would certainly lead to transcendence but which Deleuze himself rejects.

In The Deleuze Connections, John Rajchman, in contrast to Badiou, follows the more standard route of focusing on Deleuze as a thinker of multiplicity. In Rajchman's view, the driving force of Deleuze's thought is the promotion of experimentation, and this promotion requires that there be many different and not predetermined ways in which various things can connect with one another (thus the book's title) with no transcendent guiding or evaluating principle. "Deleuze would see a 'superior empiricism' prior to any transcendental subjectivity or intersubjectivity -- a sort of philosophical experimentalism that would suppose a 'pure immanence,' with no first or transcendental elements, or which would not be immanent to anything prior, either subjective or objective." (p. 17)

In contrast to what Deleuze calls, again in Difference and Repetition, the "dogmatic image of thought," which unfolds hierarchically from first principles as a universal explainer or guide and ultimately requires some sort of grounding transcendence, he offers an empiricism that unfolds (to use a later image of Deleuze and Guattari's) rhizomatically, in shoots and connections emanating from a middle without ends: a free multiplicity that allows for all sorts of nomadic couplings and connections that are irreducible to an overarching structure.

For such a thought to occur, it requires a logic entirely different from the traditional logic of predication. It requires a logic of conjunction and connection. That is why Rajchman, in the quote cited earlier, claims that Deleuze focuses on the And rather than the Is. Deleuze does not by any means reject ontology; he embraces it. But Deleuze's ontology is not based on a logic of predication. It is based on a logic of connection, conjunction, and inclusive disjunction.

Here we can see the sharp contrast between Rajchman's view of Deleuze and Badiou's. For Badiou, Deleuze's logic, because of his overriding commitment to the univocity of Being, must always be a dualist tension of the One and the Many. For Rajchman, on the other hand, the placement of multiplicity rather than univocity at the core of Deleuze's thought issues out into a logic as multiplicitous as the ontology it seeks to construct. For Rajchman, then, the univocity of Being is quite clearly a univocity of difference, an interpretation that seems to me more in keeping with the movement of Deleuze's thought than the univocity ascribed to Deleuze by Badiou. While Badiou, according to the requirements of his own thought, is uncomfortable with any univocity and thus seeks to discredit it in Deleuze, by contrast Rajchman, in seeing that for Deleuze univocity is a way to maintain both immanence and multiplicity, gives it a more sympathetic and to my mind proper reading. I believe that there are tensions in Deleuze's thought that tend toward transcendence, and have addressed some of them in my own work, but I find them more at the margins than at the center of his work.

Near the end of The Deleuze Connections Rajchman offers a motivation for reading Deleuze that seems to me to be right on target and that offers a transition into Paul Patton's more political reading of Deleuze. Rajchman writes that, "In a modern world of stupefying banality, routine, cliché, mechanical reproduction or automatism, the problem is to extract a singular image, a vital, multiple way of thinking and saying, not a substitute theology or 'auratic object.'" (p. 125) Deleuze, in his view, has offered that way of thinking; Rajchman, in my view, has offered an excellent guide to it. What Paul Patton does is to show how that way of thinking might be read on the political level.

Patton, like Rajchman, is a clear and incisive interpreter of Deleuze. It is probably not out of place to confess here that when I began to study Deleuze, Patton's essays had more influence on me than any others I read. This is partly because of their political character and partly because, in the thicket of Deleuzian concepts with which I was confronted, he always seemed to prove a clear guide. Deleuze and the Political brings together the themes that dominated those essays into an overview of Deleuze's political thought (which he engaged in largely in collaboration with Felix Guattari) and how that thought emerges from the context created by his ontological approach. Since Patton's ontological approach is largely consonant with Rajchman's, I will focus on the political contribution Patton sees Deleuze as making.

As Patton notes, Deleuze does not do political philosophy in any traditional sense. He does not ask what a just society would be or inquire into the nature or conditions of justice or rights. His political views are influenced by Nietzsche, whose own views stem from his interpretation of the dominating forces of a given socio-political arrangement. Nietzsche saw himself as a political diagnostician whose goal was to see in the symptoms of a situation its arrangement of active and reactive forces. Further, he saw himself as trying to promote the active ones while discouraging the reactive ones. Deleuze takes up this approach in his own work, focusing upon the multiplicity of active forces that can be released rather than on the question of what people deserve as members of a given society. That is why his politics does not simply occur at the level of the individual or the state -- although they do make appearances -- but also at the pre-individual, supra-individual and pre-state, and supra-state levels as well.

In order to capture what Deleuze is after in his political work, Patton introduces the concept of "critical freedom." "Critical freedom differs from the standard liberal concepts of positive and negative freedom by its focus upon the conditions of change or transformation in the subject, and by its indifference to the individual or collective nature of the subject." (p. 83) A few pages later he writes, "It is the freedom to transgress the limits of what one is presently capable of being or doing, rather than just the freedom to be or do those things." (p. 85) In Nietzschean terms, critical freedom concerns the ability to allow the active forces to be in play rather than taming them in the name of the current values of a given community.

As Patton notes, the Deleuzian concept of "becoming" is central to this way of seeing things. A becoming is not a state of being but a transformation, a movement between things. That movement may be between any number of things (think here of Rajchman's concept of connections), but it is always, to use another Deleuzian term, "minoritarian." A becoming is always a matter of becoming something other than what is offered by the dominant conceptual categories of a given society; it is a movement away from the given toward that which a society refuses or is as yet unable to recognize. It is, in short, a disruption of current understandings and ways of being in the name of what Rajchman above called the singular, the vital, and the multiple.

Given this view, there is inherent in any socio-political arrangement a destabilization between those forces that seek to maintain order -- what Deleuze calls "reterritorializing" forces -- and those "deterritorializing" forces which subvert that order. He sees societies as composed of various lines or vectors of territorialization and deterritorialization which need, like Nietzsche's active and reactive forces, to be interpreted in a given context in order to discover how to proceed. All proceeding, however, can only be by experimentation, since the outcome of any given intervention cannot be accurately predicted. Whether a given deterritorialization will be successful or interesting or will liberate active forces cannot be assured in advance, because the "lines of flight" that these deterritorializations take intersect with the other lines or vectors of a given society in unforeseeable ways.

Patton notes that the history of societies is never a matter of whether the deterritorializing or reterritorializing forces prevail at a given moment, but of how they are interacting in the unfolding of that society. "Thus, when Deleuze and Guattari argue that societies are defined by their lines of flight or deterritorialisation, they mean there is no society that is not reproducing itself on one level, while simultaneously being transformed into something else on another level." (p. 107)

Given this overview, it is not difficult to see the continuity of Deleuze's political thought with his ontological approach. In both cases Deleuze attempts to disrupt stasis and identity by means of concepts that are fluid and differential. In both he seeks to undermine what might appear to be inescapable or rigid categories by introducing ways of thinking that are multiple, non-hierarchical, and, at times, intentionally ambiguous. Whether in the end the difficulties that Badiou ascribes to Deleuze's thought will undermine its ability to offer a coherent and interesting approach to understanding ourselves and our world, or whether, even if it possesses the power that Rajchman and Patton find in it, it will be taken up as a guide, remains to be seen. Foucault once wrote, in an oft-quoted remark, that one day the century (which is now the last century) might become known as Deleuzian. As Deleuze himself would be the first to suggest, such predictions can never be known
in advance.

[Todd May is a Professor of Philosophy at Clemson University. He has written extensively on the thought of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. His fifth book, Our Practices, Our Selves, Or, What it Means to be Human, has just been published by Penn State Press. He can be reached at mayt@CLEMSON.EDU.]