Slow Reading (1.14): Deleuze’s DR (The Road So Far)

It’s been far too long since I’ve continued these posts. In order to ease myself back into my “slow reading” of Difference and Repetition, I thought it might be a good idea to include a post that reviews the road thus far (especially since pp. 13-15 are not exactly easy just to leap into).

Deleuze’s introduction (pp. 1-27) is broken up into six sections. The first section (pp. 1-5) aims, from its first sentence, to draw strict distinctions between repetition and generality (or resemblance), and it does so from two points of view: [1] conduct and [2] law (both natural and moral). What distinguishes a conduct of generalty from a conduct of repetition? “The exchange or substitution of particulars defines our conduct in relation to generality,” Deleuze writes (1). In other words, if I buy a shirt that does not fit and return it to the store, I want either to exchange it (back) for the money I originally purchased it with or to replace it with a shirt that looks just like it (though of greater or lesser size). I make my decision, in short, according to orders of generality or resemblance: quantitative or qualitative (either my money back or a simliar, better-fitting shirt).

So what is the conduct of repetition? “[W]e can see,” Deleuze writes, “that repetition is a necessary and justified conduct only in relation to that which cannot be replaced [. . .] [i.e.,] non-exchangeable and non-substitutable singularities” (1). His examples, far from mysterious or obscure, are surprisingly material, common, and mundane: commemorating an event (such as “the fall of Bastille”) or learning to recite a poem “by heart” (2). In both cases, he claims, there is “a secret vibration” that “animates” the initial singularity or event and that somehow “repeats in advance all the” potential commemorations and/or recitations of it (1). But what is the status of these repetitions? Can anything repeat under the right conditions? Wouldn’t it be the case that the same thing can operate either as an object or as a singularity? That a particular maple tree, for instance, can be the object of substitution (if my concern is mainly decorative or functional) or the singularity of a commemoration (if my concern is for this tree and only this tree)? That even the fall of Bastille itself might become substitutable (in a school lesson, for instance, on  the concept “revolution”), even if it is commemorable as a non-exchangable event? Deleuze does not really answer these questions, but one can surmise from these early pages that although resemblance/generality and repetition might touch the same material (a world of things, persons, forces, mysterious, and ideas) that there is, nevertheless, a gulf between these conducts and a gulf that actually affects our perceptons of this material. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” for instance, is (for me) a singularity; to students wanting to learn how to analyze poetry, however, it is easily nothing more than a one mere and arbitrary example among a vast collection of other possible poems. While my particular affection for the poem might seem more derivative than a student’s indifference to it, Difference and Repetition will argue that the world of singularities and events is more ontologically fundamental than the world of individual subjects and objects.

At least I think it does . . .

The remaining pages of this first section move from the point of view of conduct to the point of view of law:

law determines only the resemblance of the subjects ruled by it, along with their equivalence to terms which it designates. Far from grounding repetition, law shows, rather, how repetition would remain impossible for pure subjects of the law [. . .] If repetition is possible, it is due to a miracle rather than to law [. . .] If repetition exists, it expresses at once a singularity opposed to the general, a universality opposed to the particular, a distinctive opposed to the ordinary, an instantaneity opposed to variation and an eternity opposed to permanence. (2-3)

That’s a lot to take in and absorb, and I recommend Slow Reading 1.3 if you want my take on this profileration of strict divisions between repetition and generality. However, the really interesting bits of this section (for me) have less to do with Deleuze’s take on scientific experimentation (which often claims repetition as its guiding principle) and more to do with the problematic relation of natural and moral law. A great deal of moral theory (that of the Stoics or of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for instance) models itself off of what it presumes to be nature’s capacity to operate without deviation or error. In short, its capacity to reproduce itself according to unchangeable rules. The task of the moral person, then, would the conversion of wisdom or knowledge about how nature operates into the laws of virtuous behavior, which would then make virtuous behavior teachable and (thus) iterable. But this adequation of natural/moral law with repetition makes no sense, Deleuze claims, because we are once again operating under “the two major orders” of generality: “that of resemblance [or quality], 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” (4-5). Because a moral law that bases itself upon natural law concerns the formation of habits or reflexes that do not actually come naturally, there is nothing miraculous, nothing instantaneous, nothing evental about moral action. Thus, given what Deleuze has already outlined as the primary features of repetition, there must be a strict gulf between moral law and repetition. I will not go into it now, but he ends this section with a rather provocative claim: “Repetition belongs to humour and irony; it is by nature transgression or exception, always revealing a singularity opposed to the particulars subsumed under laws, a universal opposed to the generalities which give rise to laws” (5). For more on this rather befuddling conclusion, see Slow Reading 1.7.

The second section (pp. 5-11) of Deleuze’s introduction takes a long detour to his next point about repetition and generality and focuses on the problem of repetition in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche (and Péguy). Inspired by their work, Deleuze draws out four principles of repetition that look strangely similar to the points he makes in his first section:

1. Make something new of repetition itself [. . .]
2. In consequence, oppose repetition to the laws of nature. [. . .]
3. Oppose repetition to moral law, to the point where it becomes the suspension of ethics, a thought beyond good and evil. [. . .]
4. Oppose repetition not only to the generalities of habbit but also to the particularities of memory. (6-7)

What Deleuze seems to be anticipating in this section is the lived consequences of his reconceptualization of repetition, that like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche he desires to give consistence to a potential project or program or point of view that approaches the world and its things, persons, objects, forces, ideas, and accidents (especially accidents!) in a transgressive, queer, and even (as he puts it in his initial preface) “apocalyptic” way (xxi). This other world that he wants to apprehend (and to teach others to apprehend) is not a world primarily comprised of readymade personalities or types or positions or parties or genres or tropes or categories—what Foucault might term, “grids of intelligibility”—but “a world in which individuations are impersonal, and singularities are pre-individual [. . .] a coherence which is no more our own, that of mankind, than that of God or the world [i.e., nature]” (xxi). It is this sense of the world through which we move and in which we might become capable of thinking (and thinking otherwise) that Deleuze wants to unfold in this book, a sense that is somehow expressed in the four principles above. For more about these four principles, see Slow Reading 1.8.

Deleuze closes this peculiar section of his introduction with a reflection on the odd philosophical styles of Kierkegaard and Niezsche (8-10) as well as on their introduction of “theatrical space” into works of philosophy (10-11). I deal with these difficult pages in Slow Readings 1.9 and 1.10. In a sense, Deleuze attempts to show how the very principles he draws from their work are at work in the very texture and operation of their disparate lives and oeuvre. Reading these two thinkers, in short, constitutes an activity of recitation or commemoration, a readerly performance of their distinct styles. “In [their] theatre[s] of repetition,” to put it in Deleuze’s words, “we experience pure forces, dynamic lines of space which act without intermediary upon the spirit, and link [their work] directly with nature and history, with a language that speaks before words, with gestures which develop before organised bodies, with masks before faces, with spectres and phantoms before characters—the whole apparatus of repetition as a ‘terrible power'” (10). Indeed, the respective collectives of personae that both philosophers accrue throughout their lives seem to correspond to this rather mystical passage, for (according to Deleuze) they affect us, lure us, pain us, frustrate us, and disorient us in ways that remove us from the methodologies of philosophical investigation and the strategies of rational inquiry. In each case, we must always keep relearning to read them.

The third section of Deleuze’s introduction, of which I am currently in the middle, returns to his distinctions between repetition and generality. He shifts from the points of view of conduct and law to the point of view of the concept (what we might also call mediation or representation). Early in the section, he conjures up the rules of a “vulgar Leibnizianism” according to which each thing in the world only corresponds to one concept of that thing, a concept with the smallest possible extension (“extension = 1” [11]) and infinite comprehension (i.e., a limitless set of determinations and predications). Though Deleuze does not actually ask this, it is as if he’s testing out this conceptual theory and asking, “Isn’t this vulgar notion of concepts and representations identical to my own notion of repeatable singularites? Is the concept of a thing equivalent to a reflection of a singularity? A double? A twin? A recitation?” Of course, his answer will be, “Not at all!” But how does he get there?

What’s interesting about this vulgar 1:1 conceptual theory is that it has a rather narrow understanding of difference as “conceptual difference,” a notion that is equivalent (in the way that addition and subtraction are equivalent) to resemblance: “Even from the point of view of conundrums, the question ‘What difference is there?’ may always be transformed into: ‘What resemblance is there?'” (12). This transformation from conceptual difference to resemblance introduces blockage into this conceptual theory insofar as a concern with the resemblance between things actually alters the extension/comprehension parameters of their corresponding concepts. As soon as two things in the world are compared, their concepts become blocked at a certain level of already-determined predications. Thus their comprehensions cease to be infinite and their extensions become “greater than 1, in principle infinite” (12). Deleuze calls this definitions of resemblances or generalities between things and concepts “artificial blockage” and claims that it has nothing to do with repetition. (For more on artificial blockage, see Slow Reading 1.12.)

However, there are also instances of what Deleuze terms the “natural blockage” of the 1:1 theory of concepts and things that do correspond to his notion of repetition, and it is these instances that I have been struggling to understand. Check out my most recent Slow Reading post (1.13) for my rather bumbling attempt to unpack the first instance of natural blockage (what Deleuze terms nominal concepts of finite comprehension and discrete extension). In my next post (coming soon!) I will attempt to deal with the next two instances of natural blockage: concepts of nature (indefinite comprehension and extension) and concepts of freedom (“an individual notion or a particular representation with infinite comprehension, endowed with memory but lacking self-consciousness” [14]). This third example of natural blockage—which is the most interesting but also the most confusing—anticipates Deleuze’s engagement with Freud (namely, his work in Beyond the Pleasure Principle) in the fourth section of his introduction.

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