Henry Somers-Hall paraphrases Deleuze’s move from scientific experimentation to virtue and morality thus: “If repetition isn’t found in the universality of natural laws, perhaps it can be found in the moral realm” (Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition 9). But why? What’s the mental dance step from the division of repetition and experimentation to another division between repetition and virtue?
As I suggested in my last post, the logic behind the organization of Deleuze’s opening pages in Difference and Repetition becomes somewhat clearer as I move from paragraph to paragraph. It is as if he begins with the unstated question, “What is repetition?” and, rather than beginning with a positive conceptualization, proceeds by way of strict divisions. “Repetition is not generality” (1); “repetition would remain impossible for pure subjects of the law” (2); “[e]xperimentation [. . .] does not account for what gives rise to repetition” (3). Each particular stage of this negative conceptualization – though quite distinct – nevertheless resembles the others: an analysis of generality brings to Deleuze’s mind (natural) law and, then, scientific experimentation too. Each of these terms refers to some sort of tool (conceptual, methodological, rational) that organizes and makes sense of the world. Generality (as a point of view) enables us to recognize a tree as a maple tree (but not as the only maple tree). Law (as a point of view) enables us to expect something of and from daily life in the world (the sun will rise tomorrow; I must stop at this red light; it will rain because the meteorologist told me). Experimentation (as a point of view) enables us to create functions that enable newer and more exact predictions under more and more complex and variable conditions. All three of these points of view require the orders of resemblance and equivalence, which I have attempted to explicate in SR 1.1, but they do not explain or capture or occasion repetition. Each maple tree is singular, as is each day, each flip of the coin (or throw of the dice). They share elements with other particular trees, days, and flips (or throws), but if they can be said to repeat, they can only repeat their respective singularities. Deleuze, up to this point, has not given a full positive account of repetition – besides the rather sentimental, mystical, and alluring associations of it with “the heart,” “instantaneity” (2), “eternity,” “transgression,” and “passage” (3) – but he has nonetheless constructed an echo chamber of points of view, all of which often make the mistake of adequating particularity with singularity, a formula or function with a free state, or a legal status (married) with a unique relationship.
It’s as if Deleuze has worked through all of this and now, having arrived at a sixth paragraph, says to himself, “Yes! Just as in the matter of virtue and morality!” and, following the whimsy of his associative thread, now adds “the ‘Stoic’ error” to his echo chamber. “The wise must be converted into the virtuous,” he parodies, “the dream of finding a law which would make repetition possible passes over to the moral sphere [loi]” (3). Leaning quite a bit on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I might say, were I a Stoic, that philosophy is “a way of life,” a practice or askesis of discovering the operation of the world around me and, moreover, of aligning my life with “the unfolding of nature’s rational and providential plan” (SEP). This love of wisdom becomes a kind of virtue to me: the wise man works in accord with the way all of nature (i.e., God) is flowing. Therefore, if I am a wise man I learn to work naturally, which is say, correctly, rightly, and virtuously. Thus, I set up and follow a strict form-of-life that is capable of responsive variation to contingent situations, a form-of-life that extracts from the tendencies and seeming rationality of nature a whole technology of moral reflexes concerning my body, diet, wife, and attractions – all set up, importantly, through orders of resemblance and equivalence. Given Deleuze’s admiration for the Stoics, especially in The Logic of Sense (1969), I take it that the error he identifies (or constructs!) here is not necessarily inherent to Stoicism itself but, rather, constitutes a stoic misprision of the natural world: the identification of my form-of-life as a repetition (rather than a responsive representation) of the natural world. “There is always a task to recommence,” according to this mistake, “a fidelity to be revived within a daily life indistinguishable from the reaffirmation of Duty [Devoir]” (Deleuze 3). The pseudo-stoic says, The rightness of the world repeats itself in me and in my right (i.e., wise-and-virtuous) actions, which also repeat one another.
No matter how strictly I arrange my ascetic form-of-life, however, no matter how much I strive to attentively translate the tendencies and patterns of the natural world into my own technology of routines, reflexes, and behaviors, I cannot repeat natural law (or theory) as a moral law (or theory). To express enigmatic opposition to this error, Deleuze quotes Georg Büchner’s play, Danton’s Death (first printed in 1835 but not premiered until 1902!), “[This routine] is so wearisome [. . .] It’s all very boring and very, very sad” (4). While I am not altogether sure why Deleuze cites this play here (its revolutionary setting is rather tantalizing given the allusion to the fall of the Bastille on DR‘s first page), I cannot help but feel a similar exhaustion at more contemporary (though far less rigorous) gestures of extracting codification of virtuous and wise behavior from the natural world. Note the pseudo-stoic slide, in this aggravating clip, from a critique of gay marriage as a socially inefficient form-of-life for cultivating and enculturating productive citizens (citing statistics, appealing to our mutual concern for children) to a critique of gay marriage as unnatural and, thus, ungodly:
Ah, Michele Bachmann: You are all so wearisome [. . .] It’s all very boring and very, very sad. While the motivations of Stoics and conservative Christian representatives and senators are no doubt quite different, this video still helps illustrate Deleuze’s point: that if one desires to observe repetition of the singular in the law of nature – rather than merely in the experience of phenomena in their free state – and to use whatever it observes as a model of virtuous life, then one is bound to become disappointed. (Defending marriage on the basis of the mating lives of animals, after all, is risky business!) Nature will always outpace me and will always exceed the laws I use to codify its seasons and cycles with pesky exceptions (which eventually become the basis for a new revision). Thus, this “demonic and already damned exercise  can only end in despair or boredom” (4). This despair belongs to conservative Christian dreamers who want to idealize marriage – and covertly justify their faith – as something more than a social construct (i.e., to guarantee their own rightness by grounding themselves and their beliefs in how things actually and naturally work). The boredom belongs to those who gave up this dream long ago, who have realized that nature cannot and should not operate as a template for living the good life – that nature, moreover, does not evern operate according to laws at all! – and that the “legislative power” one might desire in order to judge other forms-of-life below one’s own form will have come from somewhere else . . .
But do the dreamers have to abandon law and repetition? “[W]hat good is a moral law,” after all, “if it does not sanctify reiteration, above all if it does not make reiteration possible and give us a legislative power from which we are excluded by the law of nature?” (4). To abandon nature as a template, in other words, need not dispel the strong desire to create and to ground a moral law according to which we become capable of repeating the Good and according to which we enable ourselves to test the virtue of an action or a form-of-life (4). While I decided to go the easy route above and use Representative Bachmann and her cohorts to illustrate the “Stoic error,” Deleuze takes on a much more imposing figure: Immanuel Kant.
I am definitely in over my head here. Kant’s practical philosophy, at least as far as I understand it, abandons the task of aligning moral law with natural law. The empirical, sensible world, for Kant, is the world of pure determination. Everything is subject to natural laws. Things are not free to operate otherwise. In this realm, Kant argues, freedom is impossible and so, by extension, moral behavior is impossible in itself. Kant does not reject moral law, however; he deems it necessary and locates it beyond the coordinates that determine the limited reaches of our sensibility. Moral law, if it exists, must be supersensible, noumenal. Even if I cannot verify its existence, I nevertheless experience myself as if I were free, as if the Good mattered to me, and thus I can use my reason to test the rightness of my actions independent of the determinism of the natural world.
The beginning of this test frames the problem of good will and good action in relation to “the concept of duty.” One can act “contrary to duty,” “in conformity with duty,” or “from duty” (Kant Groundwork 4:397-98, original emphases). I am not trained to detail the brilliance of the Kantian system, but it is clear that this shift from attempting to align my behavior with the “law of nature” to testing my behavior against the “law of duty” enables “moral beings” to inhabit a dual role: that of subject and legislator (Deleuze 4). We need not excavate moral laws outside of us, hidden in the operations of nature. Rather, we test the moral worth of actions in themselves, as long as we do so in accordance with duty and not in accordance with desire or passion or interest. Hence the “categorical imperative”: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law [. . .] act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature” (Groundwork 4:421). My act certainly will not become a universal law of nature, but at the precipice of each act I can nevertheless pause and question my act, put it through the tribunal of reason, and determine to what extent it should be done (regardless of my desire or interest or passion or attachment).
But what on earth does any of this have to do with repetition? According to Deleuze, Kant invents a consistent moral system that just might attain the point of view of repetition because it manages to attain to a universality without generality: “What is Kant’s ‘highest test,” he asks, “if not a criterion which should decide what can in principle be reproduced – [. . .] what can be repeated without contradiction in the form of moral law?” (DR 4). Kant’s test is not a matter of representation or resemblance because his moral law is beyond the grasp of our experience: our sensibility and intelligibility. We can only experience moral law as a mere form or test, not as a list of particular tenets or general maxims. Putting these comments on Kant together with his comments about repetition and experimentation, isn’t Kant’s “highest test” (4) a matter of working out for onself whether or not an act has “a singular power,” that is, “the power of a single time” which can repeat “‘n’ times [. . .] without the need to pass through a second or third time” (3)? Doesn’t the categorical imperative concern actions that one must take up as if that action should always be repeated (even if it does not have a chance to recur)? It enables me to reason whether or not my action has the unique quality of an event.
Deleuze’s point, of course, is not that repetition (as a philosophical concept) mattered to Kant at all. Rather, it seems that Deleuze is asking himself (and anyone who will listen) whether or not repetition effectually takes on conceptual substance in this moral philosophy. Isn’t this understanding of law, he asks, a point of view consistent with the universal, the singular, the non-exchangeable, that is, with the component parts of repetition for itself? Doesn’t Kant’s philosophy effectively translate repetition as a point of view into repetition as conduct? “To repeat is to behave in a certain manner,” Deleuze writes, “but in relation to something unique or singular which has no equal or equivalent” (1). It is difficult to know whether or not Deleuze is setting up a joke here, for he moves from Kantian moral philosophy to an analogy between the Büchner passage at the top of the page (“It is so wearisome. First you put on your shirt, then your trousers; you drag yourself into bed at night and in the morning drag yourself out again; and always put one foot in front of the other”) and Kant’s infamous (and stoical?) care of the self: that is, the mythos of Kant’s “astonishing garters” and “the regularity of his daily promenades” (4). Does not Kant’s iconic regularity, Deleuze is asking, authenticate of his test of repetition? The test and securement of what is universal and singular in the repetition of an unbreakable, steady, steadfast, and unswerving (but ultimately non-dogmatic) law? While it may be tempting to see Deleuze making light of Kant’s philosophy by referencing his personal “apparatus[,] described with such precision by [his] biographers” (4), part of me thinks that Deleuze is also being dead serious here . . .
Next time we’ll take up Deleuze’s questionable response to these questions and make our way to the first section break in the introduction. (I had hoped to get there in this post, but I got a bit carried away.)