Slow Reading (1.3): Deleuze’s DR (pp. 2-3)

This one’s a doozie. Deleuze jumps to it: “On the other hand, generality belongs to the order of laws. However, law determines only the resemblance of subjects ruled by it, along with their equivalence to terms which it designates” (2). This syntax befuddles me. Was there an “on the one hand” that I missed? And what’s with the “However [mais]” that opens the second sentence? Against what exactly is Deleuze contrasting these  claims? The association of generality and science in the previous paragraph? The first sentence of the previous paragraph (modified into “[On the one hand,] [t]o repeat is to behave in a certain manner” [1])? Perhaps Deleuze is attempting to transition away from the economies of exchange and substitution which he’s already outlined (and neither of which he brings up in this new paragraph). Perhaps Deleuze is suggesting that the term against which to conceptualize repetition is not generality but law itself (since generality – as a point of view – belongs to “l’ordre des lois“). If this is the case, then the unspoken “on the one hand” should appear in the very first sentence of the introduction, “[On the one hand,] [r]eptition is not generality” (1).

Law: Determinations of Resemblance and Equivalence

But enough of this speculation. What is Deleuze actually saying? It is difficult to know what Deleuze means by “law” here (moral law, natural law, state law?), so perhaps it is best to take him quite literally: “the law” as a state or society’s articulated system of rules (the transgression of which is punishable in a wide variety of ways). Any system of rules, one might say, requires specific determinant language regarding its subjects: what is a citizen? a convict? an alien? a voter? an employer? a defendant? a juror? a child? a student? a guardian? a religious person? a terrorist? an enemy combatant? Particular subjects are legible to the law only insofar as its representatives can recognize and relate them according to the language of its categories (a language in which particular subjects come to resemble other subjects). “This is a citizen,” the law states, “And its determination and designation as ‘a citizen’ secures its resemblance to other ‘citizens.'” The subject is thus equivalent to its particular term (“I am a citizen”; “I am a convict”) and, furthermore, laterally equivalent to others (“We are citizens”; “We are convicts”). This lateral equivalence is not the same thing as equality, however, for the equivalence, “We are citizens,” has no meaning outside the category itself. It may even, in actuality, remain unenforced or suppressed in a particular society or state (impacted, for instance, by voter redistricting or by legislation, proposed and written solely by men, concerning women’s reproductive health). Regardless of legal exceptions, Deleuze is conceptually tethering the logic of generality to the operation of the law, giving matters of resemblance and equivalence not just an economic but a political and legal valence.

Second verse same as the first: The law’s mass determination of particular subjective resemblances and equivalences (e.g., citizens, jurors, children, students, terrorists, etc.) is not a matter of repetition (at least as Deleuze is promising to conceptualize it). And why? Because the law “condemns [pure subjects of the law] to change. As an empty form of difference, an invariable form of variation, a law compels its subjects to illustrate it only at the cost of their own change” (2). What?

I admit that I did a bit of digging to try and unpack this little nugget. Neither James Williams’ Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (2003, Edinburgh UP) nor Joe Hughes’ Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (2009, Continuum) really address the claim that the law “condemns [its subjects] to change” (though I really do enjoy Hughes’ book quite a bit). I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but it also appears that Henry Somers-Hall’s Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (2013, Edinburgh UP) does not really address this claim either. Just at the point where I wanted to give up on this entire “slow reading” project a mere four paragraphs in to Difference and Repetition, I desperately Googled the terms “Deleuze law condemns to change” and discovered Alexandre Lefebvre’s The Image of Law: Deleuze, Bergson, Spinoza (2008, Stanford UP).

Alexandre Lefebvre’s The Image of Law (2008)

Lefebvre’s main argument about law and change (and how it then differs from the repetition of singularities) is as follows: law condemns its subjects to change in two ways. First, it changes them into particulars (Lefebvre 67). I become legible as a citizen (if I was once an alien) at the cost of a change in my particularity (this is my example). Second, quoting Lefebvre, “there is in this phrase also the sense that the law condemns the thing to a particular kind of change, a particular understanding of what change is” (67). This reading helps us explain the second sentence in the passage from Difference and Repetition above, which defines “a law” as a coercive “change” and, moreover, as “an empty form of difference, an invariable form of variation” (2). In other words, the law does not freeze its population into permanently fixed roles. Citizens can become guardians; new children are born each day; each citizen could, at any point, become a convict; an atheist can become a religious person (exempt from certain expectations of other citizens); a civilian can become a soldier; etc. These changes have only a mere “form” of difference, however; they vary only in pre-calculated (i.e., in “invariable”) ways. Since these examples (which are my own) seem to work with Lefebvre’s reading, I am tempted to align myself with him.

The law’s mode of changing and fixing particulars unites constants and variables, perseverations and fluxes, for “at each level, it is in relation to large, permanent natural objects that the subject of a law [having been changed!] experiences its own powerlessness to repeat and discovers that this powerlessness is already contained in the object, reflected in the permanent object wherein it sees itself condemned” (2). The introduction of the word “natural” threatens to derail my reliance on state law as an example, but perhaps it is time to shift, given Deleuze’s eventual transition to science and scientific experiments in the next paragraph (3). To help illustrate his difficult claim, Deleuze cites two eighteenth-century examples: Antoine Watteau’s landscape paintings (as analyzed by art historian Elie Faure) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise (1761). Since I am not really an expert in either Watteau or Rousseau, suffice it to say that they both express a naturalized version of “the law” as a system of “great natural permanences” that condemn the former’s visions of spaces and forests and the latter’s characters (e.g., Womar, Saint-Preux, Julie) to pre-determined modes of change, “exclud[ing] [them] from true repetition” (2). Why bring up the eighteenth century? Because much of eighteenth-century political philosophy, having inherited the theory of natural law as it is formulated in the work of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, approached “change” – insofar as we might think of Enlightenment as a change in mind and society and orientation to others and the world – “as a general condition” of mankind “to which all particular creatures are subject by the law of Nature” (Deleuze 2). To guarantee or secure the inevitability (or the rightness) of Reason over political tyranny, philosophical dogmatism, spiritualist enthusiasm, and intellectual slavery, these thinkers tethered Reason (as man’s guarantor of freedom and rationality) to human nature, making enlightenment as natural as the life cycle of a forest. (Apologies to scholars or laypersons much more familiar with this intellectual milieu. I’m painting, much like Deleuze is, with a very broad brush. I’m not trained to distinguish concretely the competitions between empiricism, rationalism, and naturalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.)

Watteau’s The Embarkation for Cytherea (1717)

The point is: this historical and conceptual grounding of change and particularity into natural law guarantees “the impossibility of repetition” (2). All singularities are changed into legible particulars (which are then condemned to the fixed avenues of change determined by the law’s categories). [Note: it is difficult not to read into Deleuze’s book some of Michel Foucault’s work in Les mots et les choses (1966, translated as The Order of Things in 1970). Edit: I just checked, and Deleuze does cite Les mots et les choses at the beginning of his conclusion.] But what is “true repetition” again (2)? According to the previous page, it is the theft or gift of a singularity: a reflection in a mirror, the observance of a festival, the recitation of a poem, the expression not of one’s categorical particularities (I am a man, a father, a teacher, an American, an advocate for this or that political movement or collectivity) but, rather, of one’s composite thisness… At least that’s about as close as I can get to singularity right now. These examples of repetition, Deleuze seems to argue, exceed the law insofar as they do not condemn the singularity of the unique and non-exchangeable event to the law’s mode of change. They preserve, even if they do not re-display or re-commence, a singularity’s difference (in kind) from particulars (and from other singularities). It is here that we might begin to sense the weirdness of Deleuze’s reconceptualization of repetition: a kind of preservation or ground or necessary effect of a singularity’s difference. A mirror does not change me; my reflection does not resemble my particularities; it is far from an equivalence; no law determines anything about me based on my reflection. Rather, my reflection is an effect of my irreplaceability. If my twin stood in front of the same mirror, it would be silly to say that his reflection was a repetition of me.

Am I making any sense? I have my doubts…

“If repetition is possible,” Deleuze continues in his fourth paragraph,

it is due to miracle rather than to law. It is against the law [as it is against economies of exchange and substitution]: against the similar form and the equivalent content of law [. . .] If repetition exists, it expresses at once a singularity opposed to the general, a universality opposed to the particular, a distinctive [un remarquable] opposed to the ordinary, an instantaneity opposed to variation and an eternity opposed to permanence. In every respect, repetition is a transgression. It puts law into question, it denounces [the law’s] nominal or general character in favour of a more profound and more artistic reality [au profit d’une réalité plus profonde et plus artiste]. (2-3)

We’ve made it to page 3! It is certainly the case that Deleuze’s rhetorical strategy is to allure readers with the promise of a profound re-definition of repetition. In previous paragraphs, he has aligned repetition (as point of view and as conduct) with fantastical tropes (reflections, doubles, echoes, and souls), economies of theft and gift, events of celebration (festivals for past revolutions), art and literature (Monet and poetry), as well as the sentimentality of love (“the heart is the amorous organ of repetition” [2]). And here, at the very end of this difficult paragraph, he aligns repetition not only with theft but with an entire domain of transgression as well as two new temporal concepts that are always of some interest to the mystical: instantaneity and eternity. What do we make of these new concepts? On the one hand, they seem incredibly naïve, don’t they? Should one really be trying to rescue an outmoded term like “eternity” in the late twentieth century? Should one really be trying to affirm “instantaneity” when matters of mediation and process concern the minds of philosophers and activists alike in the late 1960s? And what of this “artistic reality”? This seems far more modernist and romanticist than it does poststructuralist or postmodernist.

On the other hand, these terms also imbue Deleuze’s book – published the same year as Jacques Derrida’s De la grammatologie – with metaphysical seriousness. Thinking through repetition for itself as a concept, Deleuze seems to be promising, a term so taken for granted in the history of philosophy and associated (in conflated ways) with other terms (e.g., resemblance), will have great ontological consequences. In short, it is still worth doing metaphysics! (I would add that Derrida’s critique of the history of philosophy as a history of a metaphysics of presence might be pertinent here. Of course, Deleuze’s claims about singularity have nothing to do with getting closer to or better identifying or representing the “presence” of singularities. I feel like I’m in deep parenthetical waters here.) Given Deleuze’s challenges to generality, law, quantitative equivalence, qualitative resemblance, permanence, and change, we might already begin to surmise that Deleuze’s notions of repetition and difference will have some effect on how one conceptualizes being, thought, and individuality. More than this, it suggests a different mode of critique insofar as repetition, he claims, “puts law into question.” I wonder to what degree this understanding of repetition grounds his own scholarly methods in his books on Spinoza, Nietzsche, Proust, and others. Are these attempts to repeat them? Can there be a mode of reading as reflecting or doubling?

Okay, enough. Bottom line: repetition operates according to economies of theft and gift and to the logic (can I call it a logic? an activity perhaps?) of transgression. Thus, it is opposed to generality (exchange and substitution) and to the law (determinant change and systemic permanence). It celebrates the singular and constellates the eternal, the instantaneous, the universal, and (should I add this?) the artistic?

Next time: Repetition and Science! (Good lord…)


  1. “D’autre part” can be used to establish a contrast, and so is often translated “on the other hand”. Strangely, it can also mean going further in the same direction or adding something new, and so is translated as “furthermore”, “moreover”, “in addition”.

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