Slow Reading (1.6): Deleuze’s DR (pp. 4-5)

At the end of SR 1.5, I paraphrase Deleuze’s question about Kant’s moral philosophy, “Isn’t [Kant’s] understanding of [moral] law [. . .] consistent with the universal, the singular, the non-exchangeable, that is, with the component parts of repetition for itself?” Deleuze’s answer? No.

No one is surprised . . .

Somers-Hall calls Deleuze’s response to his own questions about Kant’s moral philosophy “quite obscure” (DDR 10): “Conscience [. . .] suffers from the following ambiguity: it can be conceived only by supposing the moral law to be external, superior and indifferent to the natural law; but the application of the moral law can be conceived only by restoring to conscience itself the image and the model of the law of nature” (Deleuze 4). Somers-Hall does attempt to clear up Deleuze’s division between repetition and Kant’s moral philosophy, but I’m not sure we need to dive too deeply into Kant in order to illuminate the substance of his point here. In my “Slow Reading” post, I cited two of Kant’s definitions of 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). The slight difference between these two definitions is nonetheless quite significant. Though Deleuze does not cite this passage of the Groundwork, it is nevertheless clear that what Kant takes pains to excise from his epistemology and from his moral law (namely, access to nature or to things in themselves) returns analogically through the as if: the infamous Kantian slight-of-hand.

In the first section of the Groundwork, Kant grounds the moral worth of an action not in its resemblance to any natural phenomenon but in its relation to duty (which is to say with freedom and free activity as opposed to determinism). His test is simple: am I performing this act — regardless of my interest in its outcome or purpose — for the mere sake of duty? If so, my act passes the categorical imperative. In the second section of the Groundwork, however, in giving a metaphysical analysis of this test, Kant requires nature as an analogue to provide shape and form and universal applicability to a model that, originally, was intended to have minimal grounding in the determinism of natural law. Deleuze is not concerned here, as far as I can tell, with scoring a point against Kant’s moral philosophy. He is simply continuing to divide repetition from domains that may (or may not) claim it as a primary operation or process. Repetition is not generality; it exceeds the descriptions or observations of natural law; it is not explained by scientific experiment. And, lastly, it escapes Kant’s conceptual grasp of a rational moral law’s will-to-universalize, since this universalization is modeled off of a natural law grounded in generality, resemblance, and equivalence.

(Note: Apologies to any Kantians who are shaking their heads at my attempt to make sense of Deleuze’s argumentative movements. I would love to be corrected and schooled in my account [of Deleuze’s understanding] of Kant’s moral/practical philosophy.)

For me, the confusing bit of Deleuze’s seventh paragraph is not so much his antimony of conscience as it relates to Kant but, rather, his turn to habit and his reference to Bergson (a turn that Somers-Hall leaves unexplicated). Deleuze argues that the use of nature as a model for applying moral law to what one should or should not do in the real world “leaves us in [. . .] the generality [. . .] of habit as a second nature,” that is, with “the form of habit — or, as Bergson used to say, the habit of acquiring habits (the whole of obligation)” (4). Luckily, James Williams usefully points us back to Deleuze’s connection between Büchner’s Danton and Kant’s remarkably strict regimen of “daily promenades” (4). (See SR 1.5 for my explication of these references from the previous paragraph.) Williams writes,

Deleuze’s argument against the role of laws in morality focuses on the rational decision to lead a life according to laws or rules. He is opposed to this decision for two reasons: first, it perpetuates the illusion that life is something that can be thought of as repetitive in the sense of a repetition of resemblances; second, in perpetuating this illusion, it turns us away from the real source of intensity in our lives, that is, the creative experimentation with simulacra or as individuals caught in a process of change. This explains why he picks on Danton’s rail against the sapping repetition of morning rituals and on Kant’s fondness for exactly such patterns and strictures (Woke up. Got out of bed. Took a cold shower . . . as usual) [. . .] The crux of Deleuze’s argument is not directly a concern with these ends or with the worthiness of moral endeavour. Rather, it is that we never really repeat according to a law that we adopt consciously. (GDDR 35)

This gloss is useful but, I think, misses the mark. I very much doubt that Deleuze is making a normative argument in these pages about how to live one’s life (i.e., opposing his own philosophy of the good life to a promenader’s regimentation).  Whether or not Deleuze develops such an argument elsewhere, I will put aside for now. For me, Deleuze’s task here remains much more humble (even if it will have profound ontological consequences later). The step from Kant’s categorical imperative as a test of a singular act to the actual conditions of lived experience and of free choice manifests, at least in the case of Kant himself, in a life devoted to the invention, observation, and cultivation of habits that predispose him to behave in similar ways within recognizable (even if utterly different) conditions. As in the case of scientific experiment, Deleuze is not denigrating habit (why should he?). Rather, he is stubbornly insisting that habits do not ground behavioral repetitions. He writes,

In this whole [ce tout] or generality of habit [cette généralité de l’habitude] we again find the two major orders: that of resemblance, in the variable conformity of the elements of action with a given model in so far as the habit has not been acquired; and that of equivalence, with the equality of the elements of action in different situations once the habit has been acquired.  As a result, habit never gives rise to true repetition: sometimes the action changes and is perfected while the intention remains constant; sometimes the action remains the same in different contents and with different intentions. (DR 4-5)

Far from making a statement of his own moral philosophy here against the acquisition of habits, Deleuze seems to be making a simple point: if we are attempting to conceptualize repetition for itself (i.e., literally), habits, whether or not consciously developed in response to Kant’s “highest test,” do not ground repetition as a conduct (DR 4). Habit certainly grounds conduct of a kind, but only conducts that are aligned with generality as a point of view (a point of view it shares with scientific experimentation, state law, and outmoded ideas of natural law). Learning a language, for instance, or practicing guitar certainly constitute the acquisition and perfection of habits and reflexes, but they do not repeat a singularity in the same way that a mirror repeats me or in the same way a festival repeats the instantaneity and eternity (am I using these words right?) of a primary and unique event. At the moment, I’m not sure I’m totally on board with Deleuze’s examples of repetition (or with his terms for dividing repetition from generality), but at least, I think, I have it worked out. Perhaps we might say that Deleuze gets into the Kantian moral philosophy car (which claims that we all follow hypothetical and categorical imperatives at all times, whether or not we know it!) in order to see what happens when we use repetition as its fuel. The outcome? The car stalls out and fails to restart. It is useless, in other words, for conceptualizing repetition positively.

Deleuze ends his seventh paragraph with a circumspect sentence (one that mimics his claims at the end of his paragraph on scientific experimentation): “There again, if repetition is possible, it would appear only between or beneath the two generalities of perfection [acquiring a habit] and integration [practicing a habit, once perfected, in different situations and at different times], testifying to the presence of a quite different power, at the risk of overturning these two generalities” (5). What? As I suggested near the end of SR 1.4, Deleuze’s conceptual divisions do not deny traffic between  repetition and generality. He intimates, rather, that generality (a point of view with corresponding orders) requires repetition as a necessary condition of its conducts (e.g., substitution, exchange, habituation, scientific experimentation, etc.). How can we make sense of this?

Let’s return to one of Deleuze’s earliest examples: that of me and my repetition on the surface of a mirror. While I argued in SR 1.1 (attempting to reason as I imagined Deleuze might) that it would be absurd to think that my reflection in a mirror “resembled” me, it is nevertheless the case that I can use my reflection in order to study my resemblance with other people or with past images of myself. I might investigate how far my stomach hangs out, how tone my biceps are, how straight I stand, whether or not I need a haircut or a shave, etc. These matters of my resemblance to others (or to an earlier self!) might even lead me to consider my mundane equivalencies or near equivalencies with others (or with an earlier self!): how tall I am, how much I weigh, how many eyes, ears, nostrils, teeth, fingers, toes, or limbs I have, etc. Subsisting between, beneath, or behind all of these generalities, however, there is still a me that repeats its singularity onto a reflective surface, thus making my engagement with the orders of resemblance and equivalence possible in the first place.

I can’t help but think here of Friedrich Nietzsche’s essay, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense,” which I re-read recently with a few friends of mine. Nietzsche writes,

Every concept comes into being by making equivalent that which is non-equivalent. Just as it is certain that no leaf is  ever exactly the same as any other leaf, it is equally certain that the concept ‘leaf’ is formed by dropping these individual differences arbitrarily, by forgetting those features which differentiate one thing from another, so  that the concept then gives rise to the notion that something other than leaves exists in nature, something which would be ‘leaf’, a primal form, say, from which all leaves were woven, drawn, delineated, dyed, curled, painted — but by a clumsy pair of hands, so that no single example turned out to be a faithful, correct, and reliable copy of the primal form. (Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings 145)

To generalize, in short, is not to discover what repeats but to establish resemblances, to forget difference, and to bypass the singularity of each leaf. Given this resonance with Nietzsche, we might surmise that Deleuze’s division between repetition and generality is slowly building toward the expression of a turbulent field of singularities that sustains our orders of generality (what Nietzsche calls “words” and “concepts” and “metaphors”) even as it threatens to overturn these orders (as Deleuze mentions at the end of his seventh paragraph). Perhaps a particular leaf matters to me for itself. I can never recognize it as “the same as any other leaf”; its difference overturns this concern, makes impossible what it had once made possible: the belief in leave “in general.” Perhaps, going back to Deleuze’s mirror example, in studying my features and comparing them to my friends or lover or former self, I suddenly discover that I have aged, that I am aging, that my comparisons no longer matter, and that my reflection had been repeating this aging all along “between or beneath” the resemblances and equivalences that had concerned me. My wrinkles, I suddenly feel, are not “the same as any other” wrinkles . . .

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