Slow Reading (1.15): Deleuze’s DR (pp. 13-14)

At last… moving on with Deleuze!

In my previous post, I continued my explication of Deleuze’s introduction, struggling my way toward some understanding of what he means by “a natural blockage of the concept” (DR 12). The first kind of natural blockage—nominal concepts of discrete extension—concerns representations the extension and comprehension of which are limited by something beyond our control. Deleuze offers “words” as his primary example of nominal concepts (DR 13). According to Deleuze, our definitions of words are, by necessity, finite in comprehension (i.e., they have a limited number of definitions and normative uses) and are also discrete in extension. What does this mean? While a word can change in usage and in meaning as it circulates throughout various generations and milieux and contexts, this change is bound and affected by all other potential definitions that word-concepts enfold (thus their extension is “discrete”). Language’s power of repetition—in both speech and writing—is demonstrated not by a strict policing of grammar or the maintenance of a lexicon but by each word’s capacity “under the sign of repetition” to disperse widely, multiplying its uses and meanings all the while bounded by its roots and traces. For Deleuze, concepts of words are thus (naturally) blocked from having infinite comprehension (i.e., an innumerable set of predicates) and, inversely, end up referring to more than one thing in the world (thus with an extension greater than 1). Thus the 1:1 theory of concepts Deleuze proposes early in his third section breaks down but also winds up attaining repetition by way of this (again, natural) breakdown.

With that review out of the way, it’s now time for the second kind of natural blockage . . .

Natural Blockage (Part 2): Alienation and Concepts of Nature

The long delays between these Slow Reading posts evince not only the busyness of an academic’s semester but also how difficult this section of Difference and Repetition is for a layperson in philosophy. Deleuze writes,

Let us assume a concept with indefinite comprehension (virtually infinite). However far one pursues that comprehension, one can always think that it subsumes perfectly identical objects. By contrast with the actual infinite, where the concept is sufficient by right to distinguish its object from every other object, in this case the concept can pursue its comprehension indefinitely, always subsuming a plurality of objects which is itself indefinite. Here again, the concept is the Same—indefinitely the same—for objects which are distinct. We must therefore recognise the existence of non-conceptual differences between these objects. (DR 13)

Deleuze will go on to reference Kant’s metaphysics and epistemology but before I get to these references, it might be worthwhile to come up with an example of what Deleuze is talking about here. The “actual infinite” he references points us back to the paragraph that runs from pp. 11-12 and that sketches out the principles of a “vulgar Leibnizianism,” that is, a 1:1 theory of concepts and their relation to their material referents (DR 11). In this 1:1 theory, each concept corresponds to one  (and only one) object in the world, meaning that the extension of each concept is monadic or singular. While the extension is singular, however, the comprehension of each concept is actually infinite: there is no end to the determination of predicates that comprise a monadic concept. In this later paragraph, however, Deleuze is asking, What if the infinity of the comprehension of a concept were not actual but “indefinite” (which is to say, virtual or potential rather than material or kinetic)? How does this block the 1:1 concept formation of (vulgar) Leibnizianism? And what does it have to do with repetition?

Like nominal concepts (e.g., words), concepts of indefinite comprehension and indefinite extension interrupt the principle of 1:1 correspondence at the core of vulgar Leibnizianism. When I let out a long sigh and mutter, “I need a drink,” for instance, the article “a” is indefinite because my desire does not actually correspond to a singular drink in the world. In fact, my desire refers to a virtual range of choices and concoctions (“a plurality of objects”). According to this example, the introduction of the indefinite into a concept comprises a natural blockage because my desire for “a drink” expands the extension of my concept beyond one thing (even though I only want one drink!) and relegates the comprehension to a virtual infinity of predications or determinations.


Additionally, as we see in the passage above, Deleuze brings this kind of conceptual blockage back to the problem of difference. On the one hand, sticking with the example of “I want a drink,” I may have in mind any number of drinks (a lager, a pale ale, a glass of sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, Gentleman Jack on ice, etc.). The specificity of these choices may or may not matter and may or may not correspond to the actual drink I end up ordering (or not ordering). On the other hand, in the case of my conceptual determination of Virginia Woolf, I must presume that my comprehension of her is actually infinite in order to guarantee that my concept “Virginia Woolf” corresponds to the (definitive) Virginia Woolf. The concept that corresponds to my desire, “I need a drink!” is, in Deleuze’s words, “indefinitely the same,” meaning that it exists in virtual relation to any number of drinks “which are” actually “distinct” (DR 13). The consequence of this kind of natural blockage is that the initial theory of difference “as conceptual difference” (12) breaks down—it even threatens the singularity of my concept “Virginia Woolf”!—for the distinctness of various drinks that may or may not satisfy my desire does not actually reside in my concept of them but, rather, in something that Deleuze calls “non-conceptual differences” (13).

This consequence moves Deleuze to Kant and to a rather difficult link between this “difference without concept” and his earlier conceptualizations of repetition:

It is Kant who best indicates the correlation between objects endowed with only an indefinite specification, and purely spatio-temporal or oppositional, non-conceptual determinations (the paradox of symmetrical objects). However, these determinations are precisely only the figures of repetition: space and time are themselves repetitive milieux; and real opposition is not a maximum of difference but a minimum of repetition — a repetition reduced to two, echoing and returning on itself; a repetition which has found the means to define itself. Repetition appears as difference without concept, repetition which escapes indefinitely continued conceptual difference. It expresses a power peculiar to the existent, a stubbornness of the existent in intuition, which resists every specification by concepts no matter how far this is taken. (DR 13-14)

What is going on here?! According to James Williams, Deleuze is referring to Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783). Williams writes, “For any given concept of nature there are further non-conceptual spatio-temporal properties that allow it to correspond to a plurality of objects that are identical from the point of view of the concept [. . .] Kant explains this point in terms of ‘inner differences’ between things that can only be revealed through ‘outer’ spatial relations [. . .] We cannot put the left-handed glove on the right hand, yet the gloves are the same in terms of their concepts in the sense that all their internal properties are the same” (41-42). This is a useful reference, but I thought I should check Henry Somers-Hall’s guidebook too. There I found a pertinent phrase that does not appear either in Deleuze or in Williams but that led all the same to far more interesting Google searches than “the paradox of symmetrical objects” (DR 13): namely, “incongruent counterparts” (Somers-Hall 17). What does this phrase mean?

I don’t have the training to explain it in my own words, but this sexy paragraph from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives us some nice food for thought:

Kant’s conviction that the existence of incongruent counterparts proved that “space in general does not belong to the properties or relations of things in themselves” (4: 484) is not easy to understand, but his basic argument in [a] 1768 essay is that Leibniz’s [monadic] view does not enable one to distinguish between a left handed glove and a right handed glove, insofar as the [conceptual and material?] relations of all the parts to one another are the same [. . .] Hence space does not depend on relations between things in space. [This corresponds nicely to the James Williams passage above.] Newton’s conception of space as a huge container does not, however, contribute to the solution of [Leibniz’s space] problem: Consider a container in which a single glove is floating. Is it a right-handed glove or a left-handed glove? We can insert various new items into this space-container, e.g., an anorak, a scarf, a shoe, but only the insertion of a human observer into the space will permit an answer. Space, Kant, decides, is related to directionality or orientation. The human observer experiences himself as intersected by three planes and as having three sets of “sides”, which he describes as up and down, back and forward, and right and left. Right-handedness and left-handedness are not merely anthropic concepts since nature itself insists on handedness in twining plants and the shells of snails (2: 380). But which direction is right and which is left can only be established by a conscious, embodied being. As he expresses it in the Prolegomena, “The difference between similar and equal things which are not congruent . . . cannot be made intelligible by any concept, but only by the relation to the right and left hands, which immediately refers to [spatial] intuition” (4: 286).

Back to Deleuze. He extends Kant’s objections to Leibniz and Newton and his argument about the exteriority of space to our concepts of things by arguing that the non-conceptual determinations of something as left or right or front or back are “figures of repetition” or, in other words, signs of a “repetitive milieux”—that is, “space and time”—at work.  Let’s expand the example of my exasperated desire for a drink above. Imagine that my desire remains indefinite; I do not really care what the drink is, only that it is spatially available to me and within reach of where I’m lounging. Looking up, I notice that two identical looking drinks are within reach: a bottle to the left and a bottle to the right. According to this ridiculously overdetermined scenario, a minimal repetition emerges: the repetition of a singular yet indefinite desire (“I need a drink”) that becomes, as Deleuze puts it above, “reduced to two” and that “has found the means to define itself,” which is to say to delimit its indefiniteness to two choices: that is, to this or that identical-looking drink (DR 13). The repetition of my desire in the guise of the drink to my left and right “appears as difference without concept,” without predication, without mediation, without representation, and without generality and (furthermore) as a “repetition which escapes,” which is to say blocks, the “indefinitely continued conceptual difference” of my desire for a drink (DR 13). 

What are the consequences of this minimal emergence of a non-conceptual repetition and difference? We see yet another way in which a literal, philosophical approach to repetition and difference winds up opposing or escaping the domains of generality and specification. What one encounters, Deleuze argues, is “a power peculiar to the existent [une puissance propre de l’existant], a stubbornness [entêtement] of the existent in intuition” (DR 13). This returns us, I think, to my analyses of the very first page of Deleuze’s introduction (SR 1.1). There, I argue that Deleuze’s approach to repetition is incredibly material, literal, and even mundane insofar as it constitutes an approach to things in the world as singularities: this maple tree as non-exchangeable and non-substitutable (even if it is genetically identical to another maple tree). What one learns from this approach to the material world is that this maple tree, insofar as it exists, has a power to resist “every specification by concepts no matter how far this is taken” (DR 14). No matter how much I develop a concept of this tree—especially if I’m attempting to define it as it is and to master it as a monad or a singularity—the tree will always stubbornly evade my concept. Moreover, my concept will always wind up corresponding to this tree and to others. Deleuze writes, “However far you go in the concept, Kant says, you can always repeat—that is, make several objects correspond to [the concept], or at least two: one for the left and one for the right, one for the more and one for the less, one for the positive and one for the negative” (DR 14). This point differs a great deal from Deleuze’s points about exchange and substitution earlier in the introduction, but what it shares with those points is that the emergence of repetition (and, as we’re beginning to see, of difference) occurs in the spaces between qualities, quantities, predicates, and other sorts of determinations. It is not so much that the concept repeats; rather, the existing thing (a tree, an event, a desire for a drink) repeats its difference according to the non-conceptual dimensions of space and of time. The difference that “a drink” might make repeats itself in the space and the time between two, three, four, or seventeen potential drinks . . . each of which reflect, commemorate this initial (conceptual) emergence of my exasperation and desire.

I’m not sure any of this makes sense! At the very least, Deleuze appears to be maintaining his thread: from the point of view of concepts (or mediation or representation), generality (here operating as artificial blockage) can encompass neither repetition nor, as he is anticipating, difference.

Deleuze seems to be saying something like this in the next paragraph:

Such a situation may be better understood if we consider that concepts with indefinite comprehension are concepts of Nature. As such, they are always in something else: they are not in Nature but in the mind which contemplates it or observes it, and represents it to itself. That is why it is said that Nature is alienated mind or alienated concept, opposed to itself. Corresponding to such concepts are those objects which themselves lack memory—that is, which neither possess nor collect in themselves their own moments. The question is asked why Nature repeats: because it is partes extra partes, mens momentanea. Novelty then passes to the mind which represents itself: because the mind has a memory or acquires habits, it is capable of forming concepts in general and of drawing something new, of subtracting something new from the repetition that it contemplates. (DR 14)


A drink—as desire, as concept, as representation—does not exist “in Nature but in the mind which contemplates [a drink] or observes it [or desires it!], and represents it to itself.” On their own, all potential drinks to which “a drink” refers are mere components (partes extra partes) that are caught among other components and yet still exterior to and beyond one another. They may touch one another for a moment (mens momentanea) but they do not exist in “general” relationships, that is, as equivalencies or resemblances. [Deleuze borrows both of these Latin phrases from Leibniz. I’m unfamiliar with their original context.] “Nature repeats,” Deleuze appears to be claiming, because “Nature” is nothing but a set of unfolding singularities occupying folds of space and time, singularities that repeat their difference in the reflecting pool of “the mind which contemplates” them (though this is the same mind capable of classification and categorization, which is to say, of artificial blockage as well). What does it mean to “substract[] something new from [a] repetition”? I think we’ll have to wait to unpack this process.

To review Deleuze’s rather clunky terminology:

Repetition is distinct from generality from the view of the concept (or meditation or representation), just as it is distinct from the points of view of conduct and law. While the point of view of the concept—when articulated as a 1:1 “vulgar Leibnizianism”—may initially seem to capture the process of repetition and the ontological status of singularities, this conceptual theory leads to an unsustainable understanding of difference (as strictly conceptual) and to a variety of blockages that keep it from maintaining its consistency. The first sort of blockage is really quite normal: when we set up classificatory tables or research agendas or theoretical paradigms or principles of design, we construct grids of equivalencies and resemblances between objects in the world. Thus the 1:1 relation between things and their concepts becomes blocked; certain predications become determined (limiting comprehension) and end up applying to more than one thing (expanding extension); and singularities become particulars categorized by general properties. Thus, repetition is not achieved through the concept.

However, there are other sorts of blockages which are beyond our methodological and systematic control. Our use of words, for instance, exhibits a mode of repetition insofar as they multiply and disperse endlessly. Our concept of a word (or the word as nominal concept) operates much differently than “artificially blocked” concepts, and their operation relies less on the grammatical or lexical rules and more on a process of repetition. In this case, the blockage of the 1:1 theory of concepts actually enables repetition through an admixture of finite comprehension and discrete extension. (I wonder to what degree we might think of Deleuze’s claims here as akin to Derrida’s challenge to Sausserian linguistics in the Grammatology. Admittedly, Deleuze’s claims are not nearly as developed but perhaps Derrida offers an optic through which to understand this too-quickly-sketched-out notion of “nominal concepts.”)

The second kind of “natural blockage” (which I attempt to explain above) concerns our concepts of things in the world, particularly things that stubbornly evade our attempts to generalize them. These “things” may be perfectly mundane (a desire for a drink, the need for a pencil, the affection for maple trees); the point is that these things repeat themselves when they come into some sort of contact with one another and when these contacts recur in our contemplations of them. Our mind, in this case, operates as the double, the reflection, or the soul of the “natural” repetition itself. In this case, both comprehension and extension of the “concept of Nature” are “indefinite” . . . Yet even after all my awkward attempts to explicate why this is the case, I’m left very uncertain.

Have I actually gotten anywhere? Perhaps. Is this still a clogged fountain from which I desperately am seeking a drink? Perhaps in my next post (where I hope I finish up this third section), Deleuze’s argument will become clearer to me.

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