Gilles Deleuze: Difference and Repetition – A Short Intro

Difference is not and cannot be thought in itself, so long as it is subject to the requirements of representation.

– Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition

Gilles Deleuze (January 18, 1925 – November 4, 1995)

For Deleuze we are all imprisoned in subtle webs of thought, bound to a world of thought-images, pre-suppositions, both objective and subjective, that weave the lightstreams of our minds in ways beyond telling, and it was to unlock these dark enclosures of the broken Image of thought that he set sail upon the seas of philosophical speculation. A post-philosophical Argonaut, he  sailed into that strange world where even the greatest of philosophers have lost their way, riding the twisted seas of this chaotic clime, fierce and resolute, Deleuze stood proudly among these speculators of the mind, sailed within his trusty ship, Critique, knowing that it was against the classical image of thought itself that he labored:

…and as long as the critique has not been carried to the heart of that image it is difficult to conceive of thought as encompassing those problems which point beyond the propositional mode; or as involving encounters which escape recognition; or as confronting its true enemies, which are quite different from thought; or as attaining that which tears thought from its natural torpor and notorious bad will, and forces us to think.”(DR xvi)

Yes, it was the emancipation of thought from its own chains that drove this Ulysses of the philosophical slipstream, a cunning intelligence who sought the “liberation of thought from those images which imprison it”(xvii). Looking back over the distant battlegrounds of his hard won victory he reminisced about the difference between philosophy proper and the history of philosophy. He likened the one to the study of “arrows or the tools of a great thinker, the trophies and the prey, the continents discovered”; while in the other case “we trim our own arrows, or gather those which seem to us the finest in order to try to send them in other directions, even if the distance covered is not astronomical but relatively small” (xv). And what do we discover when we dare to speak in our own name? Humbly he tells us the truth: “we try to speak in our own name only to learn that a proper name designates no more than the outcome of a body of work – in other words, the concepts discovered, on condition that we were able to express these and imbue them with life using all the possibilities of language”(xv).

We see in this process the philosopher as Demiurge, as one who molds concepts out of the clay of dead language, of signs and signifiers, and through the expressive breath imbues them with significance and meaning using all the tools of science, art, philosophy, and love at hand. (To “express” a concept is to press it out as in “clay that takes under pressure the form of an image”), and  to “imbue” it with life is to soak, saturate, absorb, and moistens the immaterial with the material, the sign with the signifier.)*

Deleuze tells us point blank that it was only after a long apprenticeship to Hume, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Proust that he tried to “do philosophy”. What he had seen in all his years of study is a specific set of problems, problems that for him had yet to be resolved. And, when it came down to it these problems revolved around two key concepts that had yet to be fully explicated and revealed: the concept of difference, and the concept of repetition; both unique, yet both somehow connected in some kind of bond, some indefinable yet empowering embrace that helped each to reveal the others potential liberatory power. So it was to clarify and reveal the underlying pressures of these two concepts that this book was embarked on.

He knew as well that philosophy needed her place in the sun of our day, that for too long both Science and the Arts had held sway upon the stage of time, and that it was high time for philosophy to return to her rightful place in the pantheon of thought. He knew that a philosophical thought could never be “confused with a scientific function, are an artistic construction but finds itself in affinity with these in this or that domain of science or art” (xvi). The conclusion that he drew from his careful appraisal of art, science, and philosophy is they are all “caught up in mobile relations in which each is obliged to respond to the other, but by its own means” (xvi). It was through this mutual obligation and trust that Deleuze’s future work was founded.

Ultimately this autonomous book, a search for two concepts, Difference and Repetition, was to serve as a springboard and introduction – and, especially, chapter three – to all subsequent work, even that including the “research undertaken with Guattari where we invoked a vegetal model of thought: the rhizome in opposition to the tree, a rhizome thought instead of an arborescent thought”(xvii). So we discover in this book the center of Deleuze’s Canon, the pivotal work that sums up his struggle in the history of philosophy, as well as providing a platform and research project for all subsequent work.

But what is this Image of Thought against which Deleuze struggles? In Chapter 3 he tells us that most philosophers have divided and eliminated from purview certain objective preconceptions from their thought, but that almost all have relied upon certain tacit subjective preconceptions that arise out or our empirical common sense understanding. One such presupposition based on common sense was Descartes use of the Cogitatio natura universalis (i.e., his use of “I think, therefore I am”) as a beginning and foundational point of departure for his investigations and meditations. The point for Deleuze is that even Descartes is caught in his own trap, that through a sleight-of-hand he conveniently bypasses the need to make explicit what was implicit, what he felt any idiot should know: that his premise relies of certain subjective preconceptions articulated within a common sense frame of reference that everybody should accept and understand as the tacit minimum of all pre-philosophical understanding. It is this natural common sense and pre-philosophical empirical domain that we discover is the Image of thought:

According to this image, thought has an affinity with the true; it formally possesses the true and materially wants the true. It is in terms of this image that everybody knows and is presumed to know what it means to think. Thereafter it matters little whether philosophy begins with the object or the subject, with Being or with beings, as long as thought remains subject to this Image which already prejudges everything: the distribution of the object and the subject as well as that of Being and beings. (DR 131)

To eliminate both subjective and objective presuppositions would be to free philosophy from the strictures of this Image of thought, and open it up to a conceptual toolset that would allow philosophy to truly begin again from the beginning – a repetition with a difference. That is just what Deleuze hoped to do: to provide a critique of the very ‘postulates’ of this pre-philosophical Image as both fallacious and non-philosophical.(132) “As a result, it would discover its authentic repetition in a thought without an Image, even at the cost of the greatest destructions and the greatest demoralizations, and a philosophical obstinacy with no ally but paradox, one which would have to renounce both the form of representation and the element of common sense” (132).

The world of representation is delimited by certain elements: identity with regard to concepts, opposition with regard to determination of concepts, analogy with regard to judgment, resemblance with regard to objects. (137) The danger of relying on representation is its use of the model of Recognition:

The criticism that must be addressed to this image of thought is precisely that it has based its supposed principle upon extrapolation from certain facts, particularly insignificant facts such as Recognition, everyday banality in person; as though thought should not seek its models among stranger and more compromising adventures. (135)

Recognition being a model and not a faculty is used by all faculties (perception, memory, imagination, understanding, etc. …) in a “harmonious exercise of all faculties upon a supposed same object” (133). For Kant as for Descartes it was the self that grounded this harmonious use of faculties upon the Same object. And it was through Kant that a new doxa in philosophy was formed: three levels – a naturally upright thought, an in principle natural common sense, and a transcendental model of recognition.(134) Kant left philosophy in a shambles, and yet, as Deleuze remarks “it was Kant [who] seemed equipped to overturn the Image of thought” through his use of the concept of error, a fractured self, and a speculative death of both the older views of self and God. Yet, he was unwilling to go the whole way, unwilling to overturn the basic presuppositions of his subjective conclusions. Instead of overturning common sense he multiplied it into a multiplicity of common senses. (134) It was upon the branches of the Cogito and the four faculties of conception, judgment, imagination, and memory that difference was crucified. Fettered to the quadripartite tree of the identical, similar, analogous and opposable difference was forced into the straight-jacket of modern thought: “difference becomes an object of representation always in relation to a conceived identity, a judged analogy, an imagined opposition or a perceived similitude” (138).

“Something in the world forces us to think.”(139) It’s not through recognition that we begin to think, it is by way of a “fundamental encounter”, by way of something sensed – “In this sense it is opposed to recognition.”(139):

In recognition, the sensible is not at all that which can only be sensed, but that which bears directly upon the senses in an object which can be recalled, imagined or conceived. … The object of an encounter, on the other hand, really gives rise to sensibility with regard to a given sense. … It is not the sensible being but the being of the sensible.” (140)

That which we encounter through sense forces us to think, it perplexes us, presents a problem to us as if it were itself the messenger of a problem; or, was in itself the very problem that perplexes us. It’s in the distinction between sense and sensible that Deleuze begins his disquisition on Platonic theories of recollection. But for this post I’ll beg off and explore only the treatment of transcendental empiricism. For it is here in the measure of this encounter with the transcendental, not as something beyond the world, but as the very things of the world that cannot be grasped through the power of recognition and the harmonious operation of the faculties, the common sense of that Image of thought against which the thought of sense struggles.

On page 144 of the English edition we come upon the heart of the matter ( a key passage in understanding Deleuze’s core thought and battle against Plato ):

For it is not figures already mediated and related to representation that are capable of carrying the faculties to their respective limits but, on the contrary, free or untamed states of difference in itself; not qualitative oppositions within the sensible, but an element which is in itself difference, and creates at once both the quality in the sensible and the transcendent exercise within sensibility. This element is intensity, understood as pure difference in itself, as that which is at once both imperceptible for empirical sensibility which grasps intensity only already covered or mediated by the quality to which it gives rise, and at the same time that which can be perceived only from the point of view of a transcendental sensibility which apprehends it immediately in the encounter.(144)

The path to thought begins with sensibility, it is the privileged origin of the encounter, that which forces sensation and that which can only be sensed are one and the same. What we learn is that the intensive or difference in intensity is both “the object of the encounter and the object to which the encounter raises sensibility” (145).

It is not the gods which we encounter; even hidden, the gods are only the forms of recognition. What we encounter are the demons, the powers which only cover difference with more difference. … The dark precursor is sufficient to enable communication between difference as such, and to make the different communicate with difference: the dark precursor is not a friend. (145)

It is at this point that Deleuze moves toward a certain from of Idealism. “Ideas are problems, but problems only furnish the conditions under which the faculties attain their superior exercise. Ideas, far from having as their milieu a good sense or a common sense, refer to a para-sense which determines only the communication between disjointed faculties” (146). Here he moves from Plato to Nietzsche in a litany that rejects clarity and distinctness and opts for what he terms obscurity:

The restitution of the Idea in the doctrine of the faculties requires the explosion of the clear and distinct, and the discovery of a Dionysian value according to which the Idea is necessarily obscure in so far as it is distinct, all the more obscure the more it is distinct. Distinction-obscurity becomes here the true tone of philosophy, the symphony of the discordant Idea. (146)


Next up: Part II…

*(early 15c., “to keep wet; to soak, saturate;” also figuratively “to cause to absorb” (feelings, opinions, etc.), from Latin imbuere “moisten,” of uncertain origin, perhaps from the same root as imbrication. Cf. also Old French embu, past participle of emboivre, from Latin imbibere “drink in, soak in” (see imbibe), which might have influenced the English word.

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