Slow Reading (1.13): Deleuze’s DR (pp. 12-13)

The first sentence of the fourth section of Deleuze’s introduction succinctly outlines (and rehearses) the remaining paragraphs of this third section on concepts and conceptual blockage: “The discrete, the alienated and the repressed are the three cases of natural blockage, corresponding respectively to nominal concepts, concepts of nature and concepts of freedom” (DR 15). In my last post, I tried to explain Deleuze’s take on artificial or logical blockage (the formation of representational concepts under the domain of generality). Now I move on, as this passage indicates, to “natural blockage” and an extended inventory of its various types or kinds.

Natural Blockage (Part 1): Discrete Extension and Nominal Concepts

Deleuze’s sentences nearly become impenetrable in this section; indeed, I’ve spent several days (longer than I intended) avoiding Difference and Repetition. Every time I would sit down to work on this “Slow Reading” post, I would sigh with frustration and move on to other, more “pressing” projects. To gain a foothold, I returned to the guides that have been supplementing my slow excursion through Deleuze’s introduction (and of which I’ve been fairly critical) and found James Williams’s explication pretty useful. Before getting to Williams, though, I think it’s worth quoting the first confusing bit of Deleuze at length:

We wish to indicate the difference between [. . .] artificial blockage and a quite different type which must be called a natural blockage. [The first] refers to logic pure and simple, but the [second] refers to a transcendental logic [Kant!?] or a dialectic of existence [Kierkegaard?!]. Let us suppose that a concept, taken at a particular moment when its comprehension is finite, is forcibly assigned a place in space and time — that is, an existence corresponding normally to the extension = 1. We would say, then, that a genus or species passes into existence hic et nunc without any augmentation of comprehension. There is a rift between that extension = 1 imposed upon the concept and the extension = ∞ that its weak comprehension demands in principle. The result will be a ‘discrete extension’ — that is, a pullulation of individuals absolutely identical in respect of their concept [un pullulement d’individus absolument identiques quant au concept], and participating in the same singuarlity in existence (the paradox of doubles or twins). [. . .] This phenomenon of discrete extension [. . .] forms a true repetition in existence rather than an order of resemblance in thought. [. . .] Words [for example] possess a comprehension which is necessarily finite, since they are by nature the objects of a merely nominal definition. We have here a reason why the comprehension of the concept cannot extend to infinity: we define a word by only a finite number of words. Nevertheless, speech and writing, from which words are inseparable, give them an existence hic et nunc; a genus thereby passes into existence as such; and here again extension is made up for in dispersion, in discreteness, under the sign of a repetition which forms the real power of language in speech and writing. (DR 12-13)

. . . what? In his guide to Difference and Repetition, James Williams writes, “Deleuze goes on to speak of natural blockages, that is, blockages beyond our control that force concepts to fail necessarily in corresponding to one actual object and one alone” (GDDR 41). Concerning Deleuze’s example, he continues, “Words and their definitions are always open to alteration as they are used in language and no word can be said to represent a sole object since the word may represent many. Not only that, the way words come to be associated with things allows them to alter in what they represent [. . .] The [nominal] concept or definition of a word can never correspond uniquely to a given actual word” (Ibid.). But how do we get from Williams’ very helpful insight — that natural blockage refers to a phenomenon “beyond our control” (and not necessarily to some essential core of the thing itself) — to Deleuze’s example of words? And what is it about words and  their mode of dispersal or “pullulation” that links Deleuze’s sense of repetition with discrete extension, finite comprehension, and the adjective “nominal”? Sadly, Williams does not really help us here.


First, then, a bit of a review: Extension and comprehension, as I went over in my last post, have an inverse relationship in the “vulgar” story of concept formation that Deleuze tells in the two previous paragraphs. If my concept of an object refers only to that object (extension = 1), then my comprehension of it — that is, the number of determinations I can make about it — are infinite. However, once I fix certain determinations as a means to compare or contrast the thing with something else, the extension grows (in fact, it practically becomes infinite) while my comprehension becomes finite. Thus, extension and comprehension have an inverse relationship.

In the case of nominal concepts, however, extension and comprehension are not in an inverse relationship. Some sort of parameter beyond my control (a plastic socio-historical construct like language, for instance) ends up fixing or limiting my conceptual grasp of a thing in the world. (This parameter “beyond my control” explains Deleuze’s subtle references to Kant and Kierkegaard in the quote above. I’ll come back to this later.) This limitation, however, actually enables a vast proliferation and dispersal of that thing (in this case, a word). A particular word becomes a “species,” as it were; it multiplies and mutates, though always in accordance with a finite set of predicates. The interesting thing about words in themselves is that our definitions for them (that is, our concepts of the words themselves) comprise a set of predicates that do not always apply to each individual usage of a word. In certain circumstances, but not in others, when I say X, I mean this and that. In other circumstances, I may only mean this (and not that). Though “that” may not apply in this case, it remains part of the finite comprehension of the concept and the first object to which I applied X remains part of the discrete extension of objects to which my concept/definition can refer. The limited number of predicates that fall under my concept/definition of a word will not always be in play, will not always apply to my use of a word in reference to an object in the world, but they do not simply disappear in accordance with my will or my diction. They remain part of the finite comprehension of my concept of a word, and they guarantee a discrete extension of identical words, each of which, at any time, may spark a radical mutation in my conceptual grasp of the word itself.

Consider the following excerpt from Paula Fox’s novel Desperate Characters (1970):

“Hello, Suzanne,” Sophie said. “I just heard someone say, ‘I’m crashing.’ What does it mean?” She realized she had a fake ingenuous look on her face. It was obscurely insulting and she hoped Suzanne would feel the edge.

“In contemporary parlance,” Suzanne explained magnanimously, “it means either that you’ve come to spend the night in someone’s pad, or that you are coming down from a drug high.” She bowed to Otto [Sophie’s husband] and moved away. She rarely spoke to men when other women were around. (40)

I’m using this passage as an example, not because Deleuze’s notion of “nominal concepts” and “discrete extension” help interpret the novel (really, it’s the other way around!). More mundanely, I just happen to be teaching this novel next week, so it’s quirky conversations are fresh in my mind. What we can take away from it in order to explain Deleuze’s philosophical work here? Quite simply, we see that the verb “to crash” corresponds to a wide variety of predicates/events (each of which belong to the “definition” or “concept” of the word). This finite comprehension also corresponds to a discrete extension of our concept of the verb, a whole gathering of identical sounding and looking occasions of “crash” that operates in multiple (though not in an infinity of) circumstances. Moreover, these circumstances do not in any way — except (perhaps) in a playful, transversal, or metaphorical way — resemble one another: an automobile accident, the crescendo of euphoria,  the night, unexpectedly, away from home, the sound following a lightning strike, etc. There is nothing essential about the word “crash” that would make it correspond to these events/predicates. Thus, my definition of it (my concept of the word as a thing in the world) is nominal, existing only in the letter — in the naming — itself.

To sum up: finite comprehension (a limited number of predicates); discrete extension (a set of identical, pullulating things in the world); nominal formation (no essential relation between predicate and thing in the world). Such are the conceptual parameters of a word as a thing that never resembles itself. Rather, it repeats itself beyond my control (not unlike my repetition in the surface of a mirror or William Wilson’s repetition in the body of his double; see SR 1.1). It would be absurd to claim that the words “crash” in the phrases “crash at your place” and “euphoric crash” resemble each other. Rather, they repeat one another, making the difference of the word felt in entirely distinct (yet discretely related) ways. We might say, marking an affinity between Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida, that “a trace” links the repetitions together.

Are there other verifiable or testable instances or examples of nominal concept formation? I have no idea. I’m not sure Deleuze does either . . .

Next time, I will take a look at the second kind of natural blockage: “concepts of Nature” (14).


  1. lovely, it just feels too good to be able to make sense of that confusing Deleuze passage, the way you unpacked this was great.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s