Deleuze: The Emptiness of Things

“All sensation is composed with the void in compositing itself with itself, and everything holds together on earth and in the air, and preserves the void, is preserved in the void by preserving itself.”

– Gilles Deleuze, What is Philosophy?

“Lucretius, whom you, oh Virgil, do not honor less than all of us, Lucretius, no less great than you, Virgil, although no greater, he was granted the comprehension of the law of reality, and the song into which he composed it came to be one of truth and beauty…”

– Hermann Broch, Death of Vergil

There are some limits beyond which thinking cannot reach, and if it does it cuts itself off from those primal concepts that tie it to the world; or, so goes the Sellarsian ‘myth of the given’. What is the compositional structure of the Void? What is time that its ‘fractures’ allow for thought and being to momentarily converge, splice, mangle, entwine indelibly, their filaments touching, entangled in a mesh of membranous surfaces, interpenetrating each others alternate domains of being and becoming in a dialectical dance of pure negativity? Deleuze in one of those sublime moments states:

“It is the empty form of time that introduces and constitutes Difference in thought; the difference on the basis of which thought thinks, as the difference between the indeterminate and determination. It is the empty form of time that distributes along both its sides an I that is fractured by the abstract line of time, and a passive self that has emerged from the groundlessness which it contemplates. It is the empty form of time that engenders thinking in thought, for thinking only thinks with difference, orbiting around this point of ungrounding.”

(Delezuze 1968: 354, 1994:276: tm)

Between the larval subject of habit and the individuated self of thinking the indeterminate differentiation of thought and thinking mesh in the fracture that splices in being into time’s multiplicities. Thought does not preexist thinking but emerges out of the intensive difference of those entanglements of differentiation of thinking itself. As Ray Brassier tells us it “is this act of ontological repetition that produces thinking as a ‘caesura’ in the order of time, which in turn introduces the fracture of time into thinking… The caesura establishes an order, a totality and a series of time” (182). 2 It is this subtle pause, the caesura, that throws time itself out of joint, that brings about the principle of non-identity, the fracture in identity as eternal return of difference. It is this principle of non-identity that overthrows the old Hegelian dialectic. No longer are we bound to the recursion of endless repetitions of the Same. Instead we live within the irreducible matrix of a multiplicity of times. How can time be multiple in itself and generate multiplicities while resisting any reduction to a space–time continuum? The original and foremost answer is that time must be a multiplicity of processes, where times are dimensions of one another according to asymmetrical syntheses. This is a time of resistance to settlement and to wholeness. It is a time forever inviting new, transformational and ephemeral constructions:

‘Thus ends the history of time: it undoes its physical or natural circles as too well-centered; it then forms a straight line, but one driven by its longueurs to reform an eternally decentered circle’ (DRf, 152–3).

But the structure of the resulting dialectic is very different from the Hegelian one. At the beginning, in this new dialectic, there is non-identity—at the end, open unfinished totality. In between, irreducible material structure and heteronomy, deep negativity and emergent spatio-temporality. Deleuze was on to something great. In its most general sense, this dialectic has come to signify more or less intricate process of conceptual or social (and sometimes even natural) conflict, interconnection and change, in which the generation, interpenetration and clash of oppositions, leading to their transcendence in a fuller or more adequate mode of thought or form of life (or being), plays a key role. But, as we shall see, dialectical processes and configurations are not always sublatory (i.e. supersessive), let alone preservative. Nor are they necessarily characterized by opposition or antagonism, rather than mere connection, separation or juxtaposition. Nor, finally, are they invariably, or even typically, triadic in form. To what may such processes, to the extent that they occur, be applied? Obviously to being, in which case we may talk about ontological dialectics, or dialectical ontologies which may operate at different levels.

“Alas, he knew this language, this twilight speech of literature and philosophy, the language of the benumbed, unborn word, dead before it was born; it had once been familiar to him also, and certainly he had believed then in what it expressed, believed or thought that he believed; now, however, it sounded alien, almost incomprehensible.”

– Hermann Broch, Death of Virgil

But we must be wary of falling into either an epistemic fallacy by reducing ontology to epistemology nor to the ontic fallacy, the ideology of the compulsive determination of knowledge by being—for instance, in the guise of reified facts or hypostatized ideas. Below the Parmedian sea of ontological monovalence lies an abyss of negativity,  a realm of real determinate absence or non-being (i.e. including non-existence). It connotes, inter alia, the hidden, the empty, the outside, the great outdoors; desire, lack and need. It is real negation which, as we shall see, drives the Hegelian dialectic; and, yet, Hegel did not sustain such a negative vision—his failure to sustain certain crucial distinctions and categories (including in the end that of absence itself)—that must drive the dialectic past and beyond him. A long lineage of philosophical forbears have contributed to this emerging conceptualism that harbors a path forward for philosophy.

Derived from the Greek dialectike, meaning roughly the art of conversation or discussion—more literally, reasoning by splitting into two—Aristotle credited Zeno of Elea with its invention, as deployed in his famous paradoxes—most notoriously, of motion. These were designed to vindicate the Eleatic cosmology by drawing intuitively unacceptable conclusions from its rejection. But the term was first generally applied in a recognizably philosophical context to Socrates’ mode of argument, or elenchus, which was differentiated from the Sophistic eristic, the technique of disputation for the sake of rhetorical success, by the orientation of the Socratic dialogue towards the disinterested pursuit of truth. Plato himself regarded dialectic as the supreme philosophical method and the ‘coping-stone’ of the sciences—using it to designate both the definition of ideas by genus and species (founding logic) and their interconnection in the light of a single principle, the Form of the Good (instituting metaphysics). At one and the same time dialectic was the means of access and assent to the eternal—the universal-and-necessarily-certain—and such Forms or Ideas were the justification for the practice of dialectic.

Aristotle’s opinion of dialectic, which he systematized in his Topics, was considerably less exalted. For the most part he regarded it as a mere propaedeutic to the syllogistic reasoning expounded in his Analytics, necessary to obtain the assent of one’s interlocutors but, being based on merely probabilistic premises, lacking the certainty of scientific knowledge. This last was, however, dependent on the supplementation of induction by nous or that intellectual intuition which allowed us to participate in the divine, i.e. knowledge as Plato had defined it (although Plato had not claimed to achieve it), the true starting points (archai) of science. There are places, however, where Aristotle took dialectic, as the method of working from received opinions (endoxa) through the discussion and progressive probative augmentation of conflicting views and aporiai, as an alternative way of arriving at archai.22 If he had taken this course consistently, Aristotle, however, would never have satisfied Platonic criteria for knowledge (episteme rather than doxa), never have got beyond induction. The first great achieved identity theorist was already caught in a vice between Plato and Hume—a vice that was to determine the subsequent trajectory of western philosophy: historical determination by rationalist epistemology, structural domination by empiricist ontology.

For Kant, dialectic was that part of transcendental logic which showed the mutually contradictory or antinomic state into which the intellect fell when not harnessed to the data of experience. By a turn to transcendental subjectivity, Kant combined, or seemed to combine, the satisfaction of rationalist demands on knowledge with empiricist criteria for being—but only at the price of leaving things-in-themselves unknowable. Kantian dialectic showed the inherently limited nature of human cognitive and moral powers, the resulting inherent impossibilities, as well as the conditions of possibility of human (non-archetypal, non-holy) intelligence and will. For Kant this was enlightenment, but it entrained a systematically sundered world and a whole series of splits, between knowledge and thought, knowledge and faith, phenomena and noumena, the transcendental and the empirical, theory and (practical) reason, duty and inclination, this world and the next (splits which were also interiorized within each term separately), as well as those expressly articulated in the antinomies.

Hegel synthesized this Eleatic idea of dialectic as reason with another ancient strand,  the Ionian idea of dialectic as process—in the notion of dialectic as the self-generating, self-differentiating and self-particularizing process of reason. This second (Ionian) idea typically assumed a dual form: in an ascending dialectic, the existence of a higher reality (e.g. the Forms or God) was demonstrated; and in a descending dialectic, its manifestation in the phenomenal world was explained. It was the combination of the Eleatic and Ionian strands yields the Hegelian absolute—a logical process or dialectic which actualizes itself by alienating, or becoming other than, itself and which restores its self unity by recognizing this alienation as nothing other than its own free expression or manifestation—a process that is recapitulated and completed in the Hegelian system itself. In Hegel the Parmedian dream came full circle. Absolute idealism is the articulation and recognition of the identity of being in thought for thought. It is the constellational identity of understanding and reason within reason which fashions the continually recursively expanding kaleidoscopic tableaux of absolute idealism.

Hegel’s dialectic, then, in a minimal sense, is a method—or better, experience—of determinate negation—which enables the dialectical commentator to observe the process by which the various categories, notions or forms of consciousness arise out of each other to form ever more inclusive totalities until the system of categories, notions or forms as a whole is completed. ‘Dialectical’, then, in contrast to ‘reflective’ (or analytical) thought—the thought of the understanding—grasps concepts and forms of life in their systematic interconnections, not just their determinate differences, and considers each development as a product of a previous less developed phase, whose necessary truth or fulfillment it, in some sense and measure, is; so that there is always some tension, latent irony or incipient surprise between any form and what it is in the process of becoming. In short, Hegelian dialectic is the actualized entelechy of the present, comprehended (and so enjoyed) as the end of everything that has led up to it.

What sets Deleuze off from Hegel? In Difference and Repetition he asks: “What difference can there be between the existent and the non-existent if the non-existent is already possible, already included in the concept and having all the characteristics that the concept confers upon it as a possibility? Existence is the same as but outside the concept” (DR, 211). This being at once the same and outside of the concept is both the positive and negative poles of the dialectic. The problem with this positing of things as same and outside is to flatten everything into thought as being: the concept of tie, as both in and out of the game. This separation of the virtual and the actual in the conceptual is pure spatialization of relation.

 Deleuze’s argument with Kant was that the Kantian schema provided the conditions of possibility that simply mirrored the functions of judgment, and that Kant was only able to offer a theory of the conditioning of experience, rather than to actually explaining the genesis of experience itself. In his discussion of Nietzsche, Deleuze claimed that it is only by going beyond this mere moment of conditioning that we can complete the Kantian project. In DR Deleuze writes that “the only danger in all this is that the virtual could be confused with the possible” (DR, 211). At the heart of all these battles is differing theories of Representation. Early and late Deleuze undertook a critique of Representation.

Deleuze and Guattari introduced the notion of the rhizome precisely in order to provide an alternative to the “binary logic” (ATP, 5) of the root-book (their term for the hierarchical method of division that we found in the work of Aristotle). As they write in their introduction to A Thousand Plateaus, “One becomes two: whenever we encounter this formula, even stated strategically by Mao or understood in the most `dialectical’ way possible, what we have before us is the most classical and well reflected, oldest, and weariest kind of thought” (ATP, 5). The rhizome, which is “an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton” (ATP, 21), is brought in precisely to offer an alternative model of thought. Without going into the full details Hegel resolved the problem of identity and difference by attempting to show that at the limit of contradiction, identity and difference mutually imply one another.

Instead of reconceiving difference and identity through the infinitization of representation, Deleuze circumscribes a domain of representation, pure actuality, paralleling Kant’s distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal. Just as Kant shows that the notion of world cannot without contradiction be formulated, Deleuze shows that representational actuality requires the supplement of a nonrepresentational moment, the virtual. While the supplement in Kant’s transcendental idealism is purely negatively determined, the noumenon as limit case, Deleuze develops a notion of virtuality that is positive and content intensive. Without a recognition of a moment of time between, the cut, the outside of representation, we are forced to conceive of difference in terms of the negation of a certain structure of judgment, for instance, rather than as a positive term in its own right. The moment of virtuality thus allows us to understand why representation cannot solve the problems of the macro and micro worlds. It also allows us to explain why within finite representation there can be no specification of a principle of division: representation’s genetic conditions are sub-representational. Deleuze’s response to representation therefore also keeps in play both identity and difference. Rather than reconciling these two moments on the same ontological plane through a notion of contradiction, however, Deleuze separates difference and identity by making difference a transcendental condition of identity itself. Identity is grounded in the non-identical. He applies what I term a principle of non-identity in place of identity at the center of his determination thereby overcoming the dilemmas that Hegel’s dialectics was never able to overcome.

Ultimately this will lead to Deleuze’s acceptance of a form of vitalism and transcendental empiricism. As Brassier tells us Deleuze’s “vitalism boils down to a single fundamental conviction: time makes a difference that cannot be erased. Yet in Deleuze’s account, the only difference which time makes is a difference in and as thought, a difference which is indissociable from thinking” (203). We are led back to a Lucretian vision of matter and the void, a realm within which space-time “should not be posited as an ontological principle, whether as entropic dissolvent or negentropic differentiatior; it should only be presupposed as an identity, but an identity devoid of ontological substance and hence commensurate with the real as being-nothing (Void)” (203). It is the scission between thinking and being, the slight swerve of that principle of non-identity or the void that is both productive of and an unbinding of that pure negation that is this strange multiverse hanging between virtuality and actuality. A diachronic vision of the voiding of being as both difference and negation, the decoupling of thought and being, the slow curvature of space-time carved out by the fracture of non-identity that produces identity as “absolute objectivity and impersonal death” (204). “Thinking is inherently tied to representation, but existence escapes representation at every turn”.3

** ** **

1. Broch, Hermann (2012-01-11). Death of Virgil Random House, Inc..
2. Ray Brassier. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment And Extinction. (Palgrave McMillan, 2007).
3. Henry Somers-hall. Hegel, Deleuze, and the Critique of Representation: Dialectics of Negation and Difference (Kindle Location 3807). Kindle Edition.

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