Deleuze, Kant, and the Shock of Pure Difference in Art

To invert Platonism is to discover a thought that remains within signs, rather than reaching beyond them. Overturning Platonism involves a kind of cognitive vertigo: disconnected from ideal reference points, signs are destined to remain obscure.

– Joshua Ramey. The Hermetic Deleuze

I’m enjoying this new work by Joshua Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal. I must admit that Deleuze has always been a thorn in my side. One cannot discount this idealist and his philosophical project. Most of those who now call themselves New Materialists were schooled in Deleuze’s thought, which shows how idealism and materialism are still twin sisters, and are subtly united by threads of thought that are more alike than not. That Deleuze was a realist of Ideas is without doubt a commonplace, but that he was a materialist in the old sense of the word is no longer a truth we can hold. He moved into the full Idealist camp with his transcendental turn when he formulated a ‘transcendental empiricism’.

Let’s face it the whole empirical tradition grew out of a revival of the Epicurean tradition during the Renaissance with the rediscovery of Lucretius’s The Order of Things, so well documented by among others Stephen Greenblatt, in The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. We all know their names: Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, Pierre Gassendi, members of The Royal Society of London, John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume. Each resuming that ancient heritage of Democritus and his atomistic universe. It was Plato who first wiped Democritus from the philosophical world by not even mentioning his name in his own works, that was how much he hated this anti-formalist. For Democritus above all things did not believe in the eternal world of Ideas or Forms.

Yet, it was Epicurus who understood better than any that Democritus’ atomistic universe needed something that it was lacking, it needed a concept of change, a swerve, a clinamen, a principle of movement and becoming, of process and difference that was not just static and synchronous, but was fully logical of sense data in movement, and was diachronous: it changed over time. As R. S. Woohouse remarks “an empiricist will seek to relate the contents of our minds, our knowledge and beliefs, and their acquisition, to sense-based experience and observation. He will hold that experience is the touchstone of truth and meaning, and that we cannot know, or even sensibly speak of, things which go beyond our experience” (The Empiricists). That empiricism as those modern and renaissance philosophers once maintained is no longer viable as science or philosophy not withstanding, their basic premise is still not without insight into the actual truth of our world. This is why even such philosophers as Gilles Deleuze were still digging into this empirical tradition trying to salvage what was worth saving within its long heritage.

One of the first philosophers to use this term, Transcendental Empiricism, was Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910). He combined elements from the teachings of Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, and Lotze into a unique personlist philosophical system in which reality is the aggregate of interrelated, empirical “personalities” that are  dependent upon the creative activity of a higher personality, or god. In Bowne’s  system, personality does not refer to a real person but to a kind of spiritual  monad or soul, which retains its self-identity and reveals itself in the direct  experience of an individual human personality. The objective world, its forms,  and its qualities are created in the experience of the personality and are secondary in relationship to the personality (Personalism, 1908).

This is not the Transcendental Empiricism of Gilles Deleuze. To understand Deleuze in this regard is to understand Deleuze’s Kant; or, Deleuze as a reader-of-Kant. For it is out of his early readings of Kant the Deleuze forged links toward an inversion of Platonic thought as representation that ultimately lead to his Logic of Sense. In this short work on Kant’s Critical Philosophy we first appreciate Deleuze’s turn toward Aesthetics. For it is in the third critique that Deleuze plants his flag of Transcendental Empiricism even if at this early stage he did not use such terms. It is just here in the Critique of Judgement that Deleuze discovers Kant’s rejection of the onto-theological tradition of philosophy, and instead instigates for the first time in the history of philosophy a truly transcendental turn. What Kant gives us is a theory of finality according to Deleuze, “which corresponds to the transcendental point of view and fits perfectly with the idea of legislation” (69). As he continues: “This task is fulfilled in so far finality no longer has a theological principle, but rather, theology has a ‘final’ human foundation” (69). It is in this final conception that we get a hint of what would become for Deleuze the first inklings of a theory of the transcendental empirical:

“…whatever appears to be contingent in the accord of sensible nature with man’s faculties is a supreme transcendental appearance, which hides a ruse of the suprasensible. But, when we speak of the effect of the suprasensible in the sensible, or of the realization of the concept of freedom, we must never think that sensible nature as phenomenon is subject to the law of freedom or reason. Such a conception of history would imply that events are determined by reason, and by reason as it exists individually in man as noumenon; events would then manifest an ‘individual rational purpose’ of men themselves. But history, such as it appears in sensible nature, shows us the complete opposite: pure relations of forces, conflicts of tendencies, which weave a web of madness like childish vanity” (74-75).

This is the crux of the matter: one cannot judge history from the individual, but only from the species. Which is why Deleuze tells us that this implies a second ruse on the part of Nature: “suprasensible Nature wanted the sensible to proceed according to its own laws, even in man, in order to be capable of receiving, finally, the effect of the suprasensible” (75).

What Deleuze found in Kant was the fractured fragile self, the I, the self-negating, self-referring conscious mind which constitutes the Copernican Revolution of the ‘transcendental method’: the discovery of the genetic condition of real experience in the pure difference of being and thinking. As Beth Lord tells us it was Kant’s overcoming of the dogmatic rationalists that experience and determination were finally grounded not in God but in the human being:

“Where experience is grounded in the pure difference between being and thinking, however, – either in Kant’s fractured I or in Deleuze’s Idea – the sensible is determined as it is generated. Experience is produced as surprising and unforeseeable; from pure difference  emerge the real encounters that “cannot be anticipated” and that shock us into thinking” (94). 2

Yet, one can take this a step further as Joshua Ramey shows us; that if  reality is a simulacrum, then the “truth” of reality cannot be discovered by distinguishing the authentic from the inauthentic, the accidental from the essential, the artificial from the real. The authenticity of the real is discovered, in Deleuze’s view, in certain kinds of betrayal. True vitality is found only in certain obsessions, knowledge in a kind of intimacy with the obscure, the true nature of time in discontinuity, and genuine health only in extremes. If the “upright” Platonist proceeds out of the cave, out of the world of appearances, the overturned Platonist is a diver who plunges into the depths of the cave itself, into the uncanny world of difference and repetition.2 Against Platonic representation we get Deleuze:

The theatre of repetition is opposed to the theatre of representation, just as movement is opposed to the concept and to representation which refers it back to the concept. In the theatre of repetition, we experience pure forces, dynamic lines in space which act without intermediary upon the spirit, and link it directly with nature and history, with a language which speaks before words, with gestures that develop before organized bodies, with masks before faces, with specters and phantoms before characters-the whole apparatus of repetition as a “terrible power.” (DR, 10)

To enter this theatre of repetition we must return to the realm of Art, to the subrepresentational, because the “work of art harbors a capacity for a thought largely inaccessible for Western philosophy: a thought of difference in itself” (Ramey KL 1746). As Deleuze puts it in Difference and Repetition, “Difference must be shown differing. We know that modern art tends to realize these conditions: in this sense it becomes a veritable theatre of metamorphoses and permutations. A theatre where nothing is fixed, a labyrinth without a thread (Ariadne has hung herself). The work of art leaves the domain of representation in order to become `experience,’ transcendental empiricism or science of the sensible” (DR, 56).

As Ramey specifies for Deleuze, overturning Platonism has less to do with the negative notion of the ruin of the divine archetypes-the loss of essential forms-than with the displacement of such archetypes into powers in the sensible that subsist beneath harmonious forms. What is at stake in thought, for Deleuze as much as for Plato, is an apprenticeship or initiation into what is unsensed in the sensible. But unlike for Plato, for whom that apprenticeship in the unsensed is a flight from contingency and vicissitude-from “becoming” – and an approach to the immutable light of the forms, for Deleuze the truth of the as-yet-unsensed is an approach to creative forces discovered at the limits of life itself. The modern work explores this exhilarating horizon, and in this way forms a new paradigm for philosophy. Modern art delineates a vocation that is not to clear and distinct ideas but to the depths of a nature and the vicissitudes of a time only obscurely betrayed in signs. (JR KL 1807-1812)

Deleuze returns us to a Wordsworthian romanticism of the marriage of mind and nature: “…problematic Ideas are precisely the ultimate elements of nature and the subliminal objects of little perceptions. As a result, “learning” always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind” (DR, 165). Wordsworth never thought of The Prelude as his magnum opus. His conceived masterwork was to have been the never completed The Recluse which he envisaged as a ‘spousal verse’, a prothalamion celebrating the consummation of the marriage of mind and nature, self and other. Wordsworth hoped to offer a vision of a re-vitalised, living world in contradistinction to the dead, mechanical universe depicted by Newtonian physics. Ramey commenting on this complicity of nature and mind tells us “in a certain sense, for Deleuze, every perception is a new creation, and learning happens when a new mode of existence comes into being. This is because every mode of life is a form of becoming that actualizes virtual potencies, creating new assemblages of bodies and sense” (JR KL 1853-1854).

According to Ramey, because of its incorporation of the uncanny, Deleuze returns us to the hieroglyphic worldview of the Renaissance and the Neoplatonic adepts of magia naturalis, for whom nature was a surface of sense manifesting infinite depths of possible transformative and regenerative possibilities. (JR KL 1868) He continues relaying that for Deleuze Proust’s art enacts a

…duplicity of sensation, the confusion in experience that provokes the need for recollection, does not need subordination to thought. It is not for Proust, as for Plato, that sensation requires an ideal standard or measure that will divide truth from mere appearance, reality from illusion. Proustian recollection is oriented not by anamnesis but by repetition, a repetition that will determine essence only under the conditions of repetition, when signs are creatively repeated. (Kindle Locations 1898-1901)

The repetition is itself the creative act, the act that brings about a directional movement of change that is not synchronous with the present moment but is oriented toward the future, the finality of thought itself – and, of the particularity of the knowing subject in its thinking being. In fact, for Deleuze Art was the final destination, that art would eclipse philosophy:

“The fact remains that the revelation of essence (beyond the object, beyond the subject himself) belongs only to the realm of art. If it is to occur, it will occur there. This is why art is the finality of the world, and the apprentice’s unconscious destination” (PS, 50).3

Ramey asks “What can art do that philosophy cannot?” then quotes Deleuze on Proust: “Thanks to art instead of seeing a single world, our own, we see it multiply, and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds will we have at our disposal, more different from each other than those that circle in the void” (PS, 42). Ultimately Ramey offers us a Deleuze as Hermetic Magus divining the signs of the world, the hieroglyphics of an irreducible paradox of becoming, process, and time in which the Great Work is the final project of a temporal complicity between mind and nature:

If “knowledge” refers to a generality of concepts, and to the stability of a rule for solutions (measuring techniques, approximation of particulars to a general standard, etc.), art does not result in what we have traditionally thought of as knowledge. Rather, it results in something stranger and more profound, something Deleuze is not embarrassed to call a “profound complicity between nature and mind” (DR, 165). Despite the reticence of modern skepticism (and the transcendentalism that accepts skeptical premises) about cognitive access to such profundity, it is nevertheless here, within such forbidden zones of mind that Deleuze situates the stakes of thought, as a transformative and healing practice. In order to confront the ethical and political stakes of such a reconception of thought, it is first necessary to expand the conception of the cosmic artisan to its full scope, and to elaborate the possible resonances between art, science, and philosophy from an immanent and hermetic point of view.(Kindle Locations 1944-1949).

1. The Cambridge Companion to Deleuze. (Cambridge University Press 2012).
2. Joshua Ramey. The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (Kindle Locations 1674-1678). (Duke University Press 2012)
3. Gilles Deleuze. Proust and Signs. (University of Minnesota Press 2000).

1 thought on “Deleuze, Kant, and the Shock of Pure Difference in Art

  1. Pingback: Impossible Object(s) & Other Speculations from Dark Ecologies | Senselogi©

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